Americans across the country, from Maynard’s home in rural Appalachia to urban areas like Flint, Mich., or Compton, Calif., are facing a lack of clean, reliable drinking water. At the heart of the problem is a water system in crisis: aging, crumbling infrastructure and a lack of funds to pay for upgrading it.
On top of that, about 50 percent of water utilities — serving about 12 percent of the population — are privately owned. This complicated mix of public and private ownership often confounds efforts to mandate improvements or levy penalties, even if customers complain of poor water quality or mismanagement.
Drinking water is delivered nationally via 1 million miles of pipes, many of which were laid in the early to mid-20th century, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. Those pipes are now nearing the end of their life spans.
A 2017 report by the group gave America’s water systems a near-failing grade, citing an estimated 240,000 water line breaks a year nationwide.
…Leaks in the pipes that carry water throughout the county result in substantial losses of treated water — nearly 65 percent in 2016. And those leaks create a vacuum, sucking in untreated water from the ground that’s subsequently delivered to people’s homes.
That’s especially worrisome given the region’s history of mining and industrial activities. In October 2000, a giant coal sludge spill dumped more than 300 million gallons of toxic waste — including heavy metals like arsenic and mercury — into Martin County’s river system, which is also its main source for drinking water. Thick black sludge ran downstream for dozens of miles, spilling over onto lawns and roads.