Bad Water
7:30 am
Tue March 4, 2014

Northfork Water Woes: A Failing System

Listen as reporter Jessica Lilly goes inside the Northfork water pump-house.
Upstairs in the Northfork water pump-house is access to two water filters. This is where workers add chemicals.
Credit Jessica Lilly

Northfork has been on a boil water advisory since July 2013, even longer than the folks in neighboring Wyoming County in Bud/Alpoca. It’s the seventh boil water advisory since 2009. Some residents in higher elevations have gone more than five weeks without water in their homes. But like in Alpoca, once again, part of the problem is an outdated water treatment system.

The latest boil water advisory for about 180 customers on the town’s water system was issued after the filter basically stopped working.

The water system is located inside a cinder-block building in Northfork along the Elkhorn Creek River.
Credit Jessica Lilly

To cope, worker Larry Porterfield (far right) says they flush the system about every other day which causes pressure to drop.
Credit Jessica Lilly

"That’s what they recommend but now we have to do it every other day because the filtration material has got to its limit where it’s not working any more," Porterfield said. "So we need to replace that and that will filter the water better."

The rust runs deep inside the two story cinder block building. Upstairs is access to two water filters.

The gauge read a high reading on this day.
Credit Jessica Lilly

The workers say that the water comes from a deep well under the building. The water is fed to a tank on a hill and then flows back to the pump-house to be filtered, put in a clear well and finally pumped to customers.

Downstairs Porterfield shows me the pressure reading. On this day, it was high.

"Everybody should be having good pressure," Porterfield said, "but like when the pressure goes down to 60 sometimes 40 and folks on the higher elevations don’t have any water."

Flushing combined with a bitter cold winter, several private busted pipes, and almost constantly running water to keep pipes from freezing creates very low pressure at times.   

The access port for the filter discharge to the finished water clear well.
Credit Jessica Lilly

Northfork worker Joe Gadberry says finding and fixing underground leaks is another challenge.

"We basically create miracles with what we got," Gadberry said. "What we got is we maintain to make we got water. It would be nice to have a backhoe but most of the times we dig it by hand."

To top it off, the main meter that measures the amount of water leaving the pumphouse, is broken.

Inside the building to the right of the metal stairs, a large pipe runs parallel to the ground. The pipe eventually curves through the floor. At the bend, sits a meter covered in what appears to be a mixture of moisture, rust and corrosion. I ask Porterfield about it.

At city hall, I find city Councilman Curtis Spencer, who also serves as chairman of the water board.

"It’s an old system," Spencer said. "We’re just trying to make it last until the PSD come down but there’s not definite date when they going to be here."

The main water meter is broken.
Credit Jessica Lilly

Northfork will eventually be a part of the Elkhorn Water Project. The project is broken down into four phases with plans to pick up old coal camp towns along route 52 starting just past the Mercer/McDowell line where a new water plant will be located. The initial waterline will be installed from there through Maybeury, and eventually ending up in Northfork Hollow.

Bids for Phase one go out this month and construction is expected to be complete after one year. Phase two, which is still at least two years away, is expected to bring a dependable clean water supply to Northfork. The McDowell County Public Service District has been working to coordinate the project as quickly as possible. Executive Director Mavis Brewster says it just takes time.

"A lot of times with the residents they don’t understand the process," she said. "They just have a need for the water and they don’t understand all the hoops that you have to jump through."

"But it’s so rewarding once you see those residents actually having good safe quality water that they’ve never had before."

Brewster says the biggest challenge is securing funding. She hopes Small Cities Block grants will pay for phase two. 

The water board was created late December 2013 to make improvements to the system and collect on delinquent accounts. Board president Curtis Spencer says about 40 percent  of the customers have stopped paying their bills.

"Some of them can’t," he said. "The town has been real lenient with them. We’re getting to the place where we just going to have to get tough on them."

Phase two is dependent upon an election in neighboring Keystone. The town has to tie into the PSD in order to move the project along.