What Could Fix Appalachia's Crumbling Water Systems?


It’s easy to take water for granted. You just turn on the sink and it comes out of the tap. It’s not something we think about — that is, until we’re forced to. Public health officials have found high levels of lead and other contaminants in drinking water in several cities across the nation, but it’s not just the Rust Belt. Lots of rural communities in Appalachia also have unsafe drinking water.

In the early 1900s, coal mining firms built company towns with little attention to long-term infrastructure. Decades later, local residents are dealing with the consequences. As residents moved away and the coal economy declined, this left many of these communities with crumbling infrastructure and inadequate drinking water.

President Joe Biden’s “American Jobs Plan” includes billions of dollars that would go to fixing water systems, but will it be enough to fix the underlying issues? And will it make a difference in the lives of the poorest, most vulnerable people?

“The problems with water are connected with poverty and power,” said Brett Walton, who’s been reporting on water for 11 years. Walton writes for Circle of Blue — a nonprofit newsroom that reports on water issues across the U.S. and internationally.

This week on Inside Appalachia, we’ll hear from people in Appalachia who are taking the situation into their own hands, trying to bring clean drinking water to their friends and neighbors.

We’ll travel to McDowell County, West Virginia, where a local food pantry is bringing drinking water to residents who have lived without clean water for years. And we’ll hear from former coal miner Carroll Smith about his push in the 1990s to bring clean drinking water and safe wastewater disposal to communities across Lecher County, Kentucky. He’ll share where he ran into challenges.

In This Episode:

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, West Virginia.

“In Deep”: Small Town, Big Struggles
This week on Inside Appalachia, we hear a radio documentary from the podcast “In Deep.” The show, which is produced by APM Reports, takes a look at the water infrastructure in Letcher County, Kentucky. The county is dependent on coal and is currently dealing with the consequences of failing water infrastructure.

Tackling The Issue From All Angles
In McDowell County, West Virginia, the pipes are so bad that many people don’t have running water at home. A local food bank is working with a California-based non-profit and the local utility company to bridge the water gap. They’re trying new technologies, repairing the old ones and setting up standalone systems.

Laura Harbert Allen brings us the story on the county’s multi-angle approach to fix the system.


Charles %22Pat%22 Parker (2017).jpeg

Jessica Lilly
Charles “Pat” Parker is considered the “grandfather” of water systems in the Wyoming County. He’s helped bring safe drinking water to people across southern W.Va. many times in the middle of the night, as a volunteer.

Training A New Generation
Not only does access to clean water rely on the technical and logistical side, it also relies on humans as well. Thirty to 50 percent of the workforce in water and wastewater is expected to retire within the next 10 years. These operators are the ones with the knowledge and experience to maintain thousands of individual, sometimes finicky systems across the country.

The National Rural Water Association created a program to preserve this institutional knowledge. As Jessica Lilly found out, it also promotes a new kind of sustainable job that helps people stay close to home.

Reflecting On The Takeaways
Water infrastructure defines so much of our lives, whether we think about it or not. To reflect on the big takeaways, Inside Appalachia co-host Mason Adams spoke with Brett Walton. Walton has been reporting on water for 11 years and writes for Circle of Blue — a non-profit newsroom that reports on water issues across the U.S. and internationally.


Our theme music is by Matt Jackfert. Other music this week was provided by Dinosaur Burps and Blue Dot Sessions.

Roxy Todd is our producer. Jade Artherhults is our associate producer. Our executive producer is Andrea Billups. Kelley Libby is our editor. Our audio mixer is Patrick Stephens. Catherine Moore and Zander Aloi also helped produce this episode. You can find us on Twitter @InAppalachia.