Some Putnam County communities still without public water
HURRICANE, W.Va. -- Malcolm Wood placed a mason jar atop the concrete mouth of the well outside his home on Trace Fork Road in Putnam County.
The jar appeared to be filled with apple juice, but a close look revealed the minuscule, swirling iron particles that give Wood's well water its reddish-brown hue.
"All of the water in this area has gone from useable, drinkable water to none," Wood said.
Wood, who lives near the Lincoln County border on a portion of the 48-acre family farm that was his childhood home, said he and his neighbors have been fighting for city water since 2000, when it was installed along the right fork of Trace Fork Road.
The left fork, and its 39 homes, had expected to receive city water in a similar project, but plans for it didn't pan out.
According to Wood, one of his neighbors has invested $2,500 in his two wells so that one is able to back flush the other and clean the water, but it often dries up before it's able to produce enough clean water.
His sister, who lives on another part of the old farm, hauls water to her home using two 300-gallon drums. And Wood, whose well is useless, has a 2,600-foot line connected to a spring on his brother's property that supplies him with a limited amount of water.
"We are limited in what we can do with our water," he said. "I can water the garden with well water, but I can't really do much else with it. I cleaned the siding on my house, and instead of being able to do it in a day, it took me two weeks to wash it down. If I'd tried to do it with iron water, it would've turned red."
The water in the area wasn't always so scarce and unusable. According to Wood, a natural gas company came through the area about 20 years ago to drill and set off charges to test the site for oil and natural gas pockets. The process has damaged many of the area's wells and compromised the water table, he said.
For the past three years, Wood has worked to have city water, which is connected to homes within a mile of his, for the left fork of Trace Fork. Two providers primarily serve Putnam County: public service districts and West Virginia American Water.
The Trace Fork/Mud River Water Project rose from the 25th spot to No. 1 on the county's priority list in the last few years, according to Wood, who was able to get 32 of his 39 neighbors to sign user agreements for West Virginia American Water. That's just more than the 80 percent consensus needed to start a project.
A year ago, it seemed as though Wood and his neighbors would finally have access to city water. The Putnam County Commission was trying to find funding for three of its water projects, including Trace Fork/Mud River.
Many of the remaining water projects in the county are on hold, though. According to county manager Brian Donat, there are a variety of factors barring the county from moving forward with its remaining water projects.
"We have a list of probably $15 million in water projects people would like to see finished," Donat said. "Funding is an issue, and becoming increasingly more of an issue, because federal grants are drying up, and there is only so much money to go around."
According to Donat, the Trace Fork/Mud River project does not meet criteria for any of the grants that might fund a project of its kind, and West Virginia American Water has been unable to pass a 21 percent rate increase in the state in recent years, which makes its rate of return on investments too low for it to consider expanding to certain areas right now.
"Over the years we've done the cheaper projects. We've had engineers rank the projects based on the people it serves, and that way, you're getting the most bang for your buck," he said.
The last projected cost for the project, which had been scaled back to 21 homes, was $766,051, or a cost of about $36,471 per person, Donat said. The Putnam County Commission is roughly $9 million in debt for its existing projects, he said.
"I'm hopeful we can get together with the water company and work out an agreement with them again to have more waterline projects completed in the county," Donat said. "It has to be a partnership between both entities, and other public agencies, to get these things done."
For Wood, a retired plumber and pipe-fitter, the chance to bring city water to Trace Fork will not only help him, but will help the neighbor who has gas contaminating his well, or another who must haul 2,000 gallons to his house to keep his water running.
"We are closer to getting city water, I feel," Wood said. "As far as getting it tomorrow? I'm not sure about getting it before I die. I'd like to see the community get water.
"I believe I could probably get water up to me with a 2-inch line and permission from the landowners, but what good does that do me when my sister has to haul every drop of water she uses, my neighbor has gas in his, his daughter has gas in hers, or my brother runs out of water?"
Reach Lydia Nuzum at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5189.