State’s aging public water systems need updating, panel told

Originally posted on November 4, 2016


FRANKFORT — Many Kentuckians have modern appliances at home. It’s their public water infrastructure that may date back to the era of the avocado green dishwasher, or before.

Division of Water Director Peter Goodmann told the Interim Joint Committee on Natural Resources and Environment yesterday that over 58,700 miles of the state’s drinking water lines are an average of 38 years old with 16 percent of those lines dating back 50 years or more. Goodmann said the estimated cost of drinking water infrastructure improvements will total $1.9 billion through 2025, although many systems don’t have the customer base to cover the cost.

“Many systems are selling 18 – 20 percent less water than they used to,” Goodmann told the committee. “People are buying appliances and fixtures that use a lot less water … so you have no growth in customer base and a decline per capita in consumption.”

The solution is for utilities to receive grants or borrow money to cover infrastructure maintenance and operations, said Goodmann. Borrowing would require more utilities to increase their rates, which he said could lead to annual water utility rate increases of six to 10 percent over the next 10 years. Inflation, he said, “could exasperate this situation.”

Rep. Hubert Collins, D-Wittensville, said he remembers when only around 50 percent of his home county of Johnson had access to water. Today, around 95 percent of the county has water access — about the same percentage of total Kentuckians served by public water systems, said Goodmann — thanks to the availability of coal severance funding for water projects. Now that coal severance funds are drying up, Collins asked Goodmann about specific grants and loans available to communities.

Goodmann said low-interest loans through state revolving loan funds, federal Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) money and some rural development loans and grants are “the big three” to help with water needs. Abandoned Mine Lands (AML) grant funds many also be of help, he said.

“The AML program has financed quite a few line extensions out into rural areas. A lot of that in mining areas has been done through the AML program,” he told Collins.

Questions about efforts to clean up the Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy River, impacted by a 2015 sewage spill in Virginia, and to remove trash from Pike County’s Fishtrap Lake were asked by Sen. Ray Jones, D-Pikeville. Goodmann said the water quality of both the Levisa Fork and the lake are “very good” although there is a significant amount of trash in the lake. With prompting from Jones, Goodman said the state may ask the Corps of Engineers to help place some device in the area of the Levisa Fork to catch trash traveling into Fishtrap.

From a state agency standpoint, Goodmann said Kentucky has been successful not just at providing access to drinking water but also in reaching compliance with health standards. The state holds a health standards compliance rate of 99.7 percent, he told lawmakers. After water safety violations were revealed in Flint, Mich., Goodmann said a state lead working group is reviewing Kentucky’s lead and copper protocols, although he clarified that the state’s public water systems have “a very good compliance record.”

“I don’t have any desire to sit in front of this group and try to explain a Flint situation in Kentucky,” said Goodmann. “We wanted to make sure our protocols are appropriate.” That drew a response from committee Co-Chair Rep. Fitz Steele, D-Hazard.

“No, we definitely do not need a Flint, Mich. in the Commonwealth of Kentucky,” said Steele.

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