Laura Harbert Allen Published

McDowell Food Pantry Partners With Calif. Non-Profit To Get Clean Water For Locals

Five Loaves and Two Fishes Food Bank water distribution

The Five Loaves, Two Fishes food bank sits on a narrow strip of land between Elkhorn Creek and U.S. Route 52 in McDowell County, West Virginia. Behind a black fence with a gate sits what looks like a bunch of small solar panels. The panels make a strange noise – almost as if a spaceship is about to take off.

Turns out these aren’t solar panels – they’re hydopanels.

“Basically what they do is pull the moisture out of the air,” said Bob McKinney, who manages the Appalachian Water Project. “And send it into those panels. And it’s filtrated. I’ve had it sampled and it’s pure drinking water.”

McKinney has worn many hats in McDowell County over the years – teacher, electrical contractor, and pastor to name just a few. Now, he manages the hydropanel project for Dig Deep, a non-profit organization that works with the local communities around the country to solve water access problems. In McDowell County, a lot of water infrastructure was put in by coal companies decades ago, and it’s simply wearing out.

“Some of the lines are getting pretty old, and they’re going to have to be replaced. And the pump houses and things like that are getting pretty old and they’re going to have to be repaired,” McKinney said.

In the meantime, Dig Deep helped install the hydropanels because people kept coming to the food bank asking for the same thing: water.

Five Loaves Two Fishes Foodbank

Laura Harbert Allen
Bob and Linda McKinney say that people ask for water as much or more than they do food when they come to the Five Loaves Two Fishes Foodbank in McDowell County, W. Va.

Bob’s wife, Linda, who runs the food bank, greets clients who stop by. Jenny Jones, 88, is among those picking up water.

“I never thought I would be in a water line. And I thank God every day for these wonderful people working here,” Jones said.

But the hydopanels only produce about 200 gallons of water a month. Most people use about 100 gallons a day. So they help, but they don’t go far enough. Mavis Brewster, general manager of the McDowell County Public Service District – or PSD – said that people have to figure out their own solutions right now. For example, on Bradshaw Mountain, there is essentially no water system.

“They are having creek water hauled and they’re paying $30 for 1,000 gallons of water that they can’t do anything with except maybe flush their commodes,” Brewster said.

In Northfork Hollow, there is a water system, but it’s old and needs to be completely replaced.


Laura Harbert Allen
24 hydropanels sit on a grassy lot behind a fence next to the Five Loaves Two Fishes Foodbank in McDowell County, W.Va. The panels use solar power to draw moisture from the air, eventually converting it into safe drinking water.

“That includes a water plant, lines, meters and fire hydrants so you’d be able to offer good, reliable water service to all of Northfork Hollow,” Brewster said.

That’s just one project the county needs.

None of this comes as a surprise to George McGraw, Dig Deep’s founder and CEO. In 2015, “CBS Sunday Morning” aired a feature highlighting the non-profit’s work in the Navajo Nation.

After the segment aired, McGraw’s office was flooded with calls from potential donors who wanted to help. But Dig Deep also got calls from people living across the country – from Texas, Alabama, and West Virginia – who also had no running water.

Dig Deep started looking for any data on U.S. water access, but ran into a big problem.

“No one could tell us how many people there were in the U.S. without running water and where they lived and why they were experiencing it,” McGraw said. “We may be one of the only countries in the world that’s not measuring [water access] on an active basis,” he said.

Dig Deep stepped into the gap, partnering with the U.S. Water Alliance and researchers at Michigan State University to figure out where access to potable water in the U.S. was a problem.

Appalachia and the Navajo Nation were two of several places that stood out. Despite radically different geographies – West Virginia is steep, rocky, and compressed, while Navajo Country is flat, arid, and spread out – the two communities struggle with access to potable water.

Emma Robbins, who directs the Navajo Water Project for Dig Deep, said not having access to basic running water is a lack of a basic human right.

Five Loaves and Two Fishes Food Bank water distribution

Lexi Browning/DIGDEEP
McDowell County residents collect donated water during a water distribution at Five Loaves and Two Fishes Food Bank on Saturday, March 6, 2021, in Kimball, W. Va. Photo: Lexi Browning/DIGDEEP

“It’s really important to remember the vastness of the Navajo Nation. There are just all these different communities that are very far from water lines or they don’t live near a safe water source,” Robbins said.

Dig Deep works on a range of solutions across the reservation, Robbins said. During the pandemic, they’ve helped residents to pay water bills. They’ve also installed home water systems in another part of the reservation.

Sometimes, problems require their own unique solutions. “It’s not a cut-and-paste solution. People will say, ‘Well, I worked in a developing country somewhere else so this is going to work,’ and that’s not always the case,” said Robbins.

The organization is applying the same approach in McDowell County. The hydropanels are what McGraw calls a “welcome mat” project. Small projects like the panels help the organization get to know the community, he says.

Since installing the hydropanels last July, the organization has partnered with the PSD and local residents with a goal of extending high-pressure water lines to 150 homes in McDowell County this year.

For McKinney, it’s about improving the quality of life for people in McDowell County, something he has worked toward for decades. Clean water for everyone in McDowell County may not happen in his lifetime, he said. But you never know.

“I get a little frustrated things don’t happen when I want them to, but that’s just the way it is,” McKinney said. “We just have to be patient.”

For now, McKinney focuses on getting water to people when – and where – he can.