Water hard to come by for some people

Published 12:00 am Sunday, September 21, 2003

FAYETTE TOWNSHIP - Louella Gillespie thinks regularly about something most people take for granted: water.

"I don't wash the car at home. We watch what we're doing with it. If we get low on water, we wait to do the laundry until we get a new supply hauled in," Gillespie said. "I guess sometimes I get irritated when people who have public water get angry about water line breaks. I think to myself 'at least you have water.'"

The Gillespie household is one of a few hundred scattered throughout Lawrence County that do not have public water service and must rely on wells and cisterns. Gillespie and others like her have approached the Lawrence County Commission with their frustration at not being able to get water service. Earlier this year, the Commission asked Ralph Kline, community development director for the Ironton-Lawrence County Community Action Organization, to look into what sources of funding are available to get water to families in need of it.

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The haves and the have-nots

"We're a dead zone," Gillespie said.

Her house and about 20 others on Burlington-Macedonia Road are only a couple of miles from Hecla Water Co. lines and Ohio-American Water Co. lines. These houses are on a hill. Their neighbors at the bottom of the hill have public water.

Gillespie's water supply does not come from an underground line but from a truck.

Since Lawrence County has only a handful of water haulers, water has to be ordered and delivered in bulk quantity.

"We always have to keep track of how much water we have. If the roads ice over in the winter, the truck can't make it to us. So, we have to keep watch on the weather and make sure sure we get water before the roads get bad," Gillespie said. "We look at conserving water all the time."

One of Gillespie's neighbors is an elderly man whose well went bad. He must now rely on family members to bring him drinking water.

In the last year, residents on Charley Creek Road, Johns Fork,

Waterloo, Sand Fork and several other areas have also contacted the commission for help in getting lines extended.

Obstacles to running water

Providing water service to unserved areas is not a simple project, nor is it a cheap one. The cost of actually running lines is one reason why some local water company executives said they have not expanded their service areas.

Ohio-American Water Company executive John Hildebrandt told the commission last year that

his company is willing to extend water lines to unserved areas if it's financially feasible for the company to provide the water service.

"It's an economic decision for us," Hildabrant said at that time. "We can't arbitrarily decide to extend water lines. It's not good business practice to pay an exorbitant amount of money to extend water lines to only a few people. We'll help as much as we can."

The Ironton Tribune contacted Ohio-American Water Co. this week to ask if that company has any plans to extend water lines in the immediate future. Nobody returned the phone call.

Some areas of the county are more of a challenge than others. Providing service to houses on hilltops or rough terrain can mean the need for pump stations, which adds to the cost of the project.

For some families, the cost of tapping into water lines, even if service is offered, can be a huge expense. Lawrence County Commission President George Patterson said every year the county sets aside money to pay for tap fees for low- to moderate-income families in areas where water lines may be extended.

For Hecla Water Co., the issue is not only cost, but also supply. The not-for-profit business has historically relied on wells for its water supply, but engineer Tim Dalton said in the last few years, the wells have not produced enough water to meet demand. The Environmental Protection Agency prohibits the installation of lines to new customers unless the water company can demonstrate that they have enough water to meet demand.

"Expanding the system is on hold until we can augment our supply," Dalton said.

Hecla's supply problem is also Lawrence Water Co.'s supply problem, since Lawrence water buys its supply from Hecla.

Dalton said Hecla is in the process of entering into an agreement with West Virginia-American Water Co. to purchase 750,000 gallons of water daily. The surface water will be blended with Hecla's well water. The water lines will be laid underwater, crossing the Ohio River.

Even once the agreement is signed, Dalton said serving new customers is a slow process. No less than three government agencies must issue permits for construction - the EPA, the Ohio Department of Industrial Relations

and even the Federal Communications Commission for telemetry equipment that monitors pumps and water storage tanks.

The permit process, along with design plans and various studies, can take 1-2 years before the first line is laid.

"The construction phase is the shortest part of the project," Dalton said.

While for-profit companies cannot generally obtain government funding to pay for capital projects, government agencies can. Kline and his staff are exploring ways that the county government can get money to run water lines and install the necessary equipment, with the local water companies then supplying the water to the lines.

Kline said one challenge to getting grant monies to pay for water projects is the cost of going after grant money itself.

Kline operates with a small staff that handles a number of projects for various local governments, and it takes time for a staff member to research what grants are available and then complete what is usually a complicated process of pre-applications, applications and other paperwork, he said.

Another challenge is writing a grant proposal or submitting an application that will win federal or state dollars, which are few and far between.

"There is a much greater demand that there are funds available," Kline said.

The CAO submitted a preapplication in August for Appalachian Regional Commission funding to extend water lines to houses in the Big Branch Road area. The ARC funds would pay for the cost of the project. Hecla would provide the water.

Patterson said another bright spot on the horizon is the extension of water lines to houses in the Sand Fork area of Mason Township. That project was held up by one landowner who had public water, but had refused to allow water lines to neighbors' houses to cross her property. The county commission exercised imminent domain in an effort to get the right to cross the woman's land.

Do it yourself

Some of Gillespie's neighbors have run water lines themselves in an effort to end the long wait for water service. Glen Stanley said he paid a contractor and bought 4,000 feet of two-inch high pressure lines himself five years ago. He paid Hecla Water an $800 tap fee for the right to tap into their line on Big Solida Road.

"I live a quarter of a mile from the four-lane and I couldn't get water," Stanley said. "I talked to Ohio American Water and they told me it would be $18,000 to run that line. I just had a leak and I had to pay a contractor myself to come out and fix it."

Stanley said he knows of other people who have run their own lines. But for many, running their own lines is simply cost-prohibitive.