- Associated Press - Saturday, September 26, 2015

For Joy Gunnoe, a water main break isn’t merely a hassle.

Gunnoe’s sausage and salad manufacturing company in West Virginia loses between $5,000 and $15,000 a day every time the water is shut off because of a break. And that’s happening all too frequently, she says.

“I lose sleep over it,” the owner of Gunnoe Farms Salad & Sausage in Charleston said.

As crumbling drinking water infrastructure causes headaches for businesses and residents across the country, some residents in West Virginia’s Kanawha Valley who are fed up with main breaks and boil water advisories are now pushing for a public takeover of the region’s water system.

“It just seems like it is going to get worse before it gets better,” said Karan Ireland, a member of the Charleston City Council who’s spearheading the effort by Advocates for a Safe Water System.

The group was formed in the wake of the 2014 Elk River chemical spill that contaminated the drinking water for 300,000 residents for days and made residents more aware of the region’s significant water problems, Ireland said.

West Virginia isn’t alone in its drinking water infrastructure woes. In many places around the country, the promise of clean, cheap, readily available water has been taken for granted, but that has begun to change.

Farm runoff has polluted municipal water sources, drought has taken its toll on reservoirs and wells, and the aging underground networks of pipes that carry water to homes and businesses rupture all too frequently. Just as with crumbling bridges or congested highways, the solutions don’t come cheap.

Walt Ivey, director of West Virginia’s Office of Environmental Health Services, estimates that the state needs more than $1 billion in drinking water infrastructure improvements, like the replacement of crumbling pipes.

Nationwide, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency projects it will cost $384 billion over 20 years just to maintain the nation’s existing drinking water infrastructure.

Replacing pipes, treatment plants and other infrastructure as well as expanding drinking water systems to handle population growth could cost as much as $1 trillion over the next 25 years. Without that investment, industry groups warn of a future with more infrastructure failures that will disrupt service, transportation and commerce.

Ireland’s group claims that West Virginia American Water, the private company that operates the region’s water system, isn’t doing enough to maintain and improve its infrastructure.

Gunnoe said her water has been turned off twice since February due to breaks. One of those shutdowns lasted for five days. She and other activists say residents could hold a public water system more accountable.

Laura Jordan, a spokeswoman for West Virginia American Water, declined an interview to discuss the group’s claims. But Jordan said in an email that the claims are not “fact based.”

“West Virginia American Water been a local water utility provider in West Virginia for nearly 130 years, and providing high quality, reliable water service to our customers is our number one focus,” she said. “This commitment will not change for our Kanawha Valley customers, nor for the one-third of the state’s population that we serve.”

Jordan said the company has boosted it’s spending on water systems to $35 million to $40 million a year and has continued to invest in new and replacement infrastructure. West Virginia American Water spent $105 million in system improvements between 2012 and 2014 and intends to spend $98 million more on projects through the beginning of 2017, she said.

Ireland’s group acknowledges that it faces big hurdles in attempting to take over the company and says it’s still exploring its options, which include a negotiated buyout or creating a regional water authority that has eminent domain power.

And even if they’re successful, a public water system likely won’t solve all the region’s drinking water infrastructure worries. Public systems in West Virginia face similar problems because of limited funds to fix aging pipes and water tanks.

“We’ve had some situations like that where residents have had several days without water service being restored because the pipes are in such bad shape,” said Mavis Brewster of the McDowell County Public Service District.


Follow Alanna Durkin at https://www.twitter.com/aedurkin

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