Robert Burton: What to do about West Virginia's water crisis

Clean water. Our quality of life revolves around it. Our economy runs on it. Our families’ health is protected by it. Our very lives depend on it.

As the president of West Virginia American Water, I have the privilege of leading the team that provides and protects this precious resource for one in three West Virginians. We work around the clock to keep life flowing for our customers by providing clean, safe, reliable and affordable water service to meet all our community’s water needs: clean drinking water, industry sustainability, fire protection and sanitation.

Recently, John David contributed an opinion piece titled “West Virginia’s water crisis.” What David failed to disclose is that he serves as a commissioner of the Page-Kincaid Public Service District in Fayette County. His PSD is facing a water crisis of its own, as its customers have experienced poor water quality, and its system loses more than half of the water it produces through leaky pipes.

He criticized our company for withdrawing water free of charge but failed to mention that all water providers with surface water sources, including PSDs, are also not charged for the water they withdraw. This is good policy, as water utilities provide a critical public service for the public good.

Our investment in constructing a state-of-the-art, award-winning regional water treatment plant on the New River in Fayette County is the reason why the community of Minden now receives the same exceptional quality drinking water as the rest of our Fayette County customers. Because our company acquired the struggling PSD in Minden and connected their customers to our water supply, the community no longer must worry about the possibility of PCB-contaminated drinking water.

Finally, our company only uses pipe that is compliant with health department regulations, and the notion that we use contaminated pipe is completely false and an alarmist statement intended to induce fear at the expense of the truth.

Two things on which David and I do agree are that West Virginia is blessed with an abundant essential resource, and that the time has come for practical solutions to the state’s drinking water challenges. According to a needs assessment by the West Virginia Infrastructure and Jobs Development Council, an investment approaching $17 billion is needed to address the crippling crisis of broken pipes and failing treatment plants facing West Virginia’s water and wastewater systems.

As detailed in a January Gazette-Mail article by Caity Coyne, dozens of water systems lose more than half of the water they treat and pump by way of leaking pipes — water that never reaches customers and ultimately increases costs.

Most water and wastewater systems across the state were established in the early 1940s to 1960s and are now in need of costly repairs and upgrades to maintain adequate water quality and service to customers. The age of these systems — coupled with a declining and aging population, continually deferred investments and ever-increasing regulations — has led to many systems now struggling for resources and funding to meet the needs of their existing customers, let alone spurring economic development and revitalization.

One solution includes working with the Legislature in 2020 on policies that will enable and encourage more investment in troubled water and wastewater systems like David’s. To truly impact change, West Virginia lawmakers must recognize the need to prioritize limited state and federal infrastructure dollars to fund long-term, sustainable solutions rather than repeated emergency fixes. Because water and wastewater treatment facilities are expensive to build, maintain, upgrade and operate, policymakers should also understand the need for consolidation and regionalization where it makes geographical and operational sense.

Further, we must all realize that there is no one solution to solve the state’s infrastructure crisis. Along with the Public Service Commission, West Virginia Water Development Authority, West Virginia Rural Water Association, Infrastructure and Jobs Development Council and other agencies, we must and will work together to meet needs both large and small that are crucial to quality of life and economic development for our state.

As the state’s largest water service provider, we know that at the end of every water pipe, a family is trusting that the water they give their children is safe and clean. At every fire hydrant we service, lives are at stake. And every wastewater plant serves as a shield of protection for our health and water resources.

All those that work to provide solutions to our state’s water and wastewater infrastructure crisis understand these critical needs. Now is the time that we must lay a solid foundation to enable and encourage increased investment in water and wastewater systems. Now is the time that we must come together to enact real, impactful change for the future of water in West Virginia.

Robert Burton is president of West Virginia American Water.

Funerals for Monday, January 27, 2020

Davis, Valerie - 11 a.m., Cunningham Memorial Park, St. Albans.

Hamrick, Leonard - 1 p.m., Waters Funeral Chapel, Summersville.

Hughes Jr., Denver - 1 p.m., Curry Funeral Home, Alum Creek.

Keen, Cora - 2 p.m., Tyler Mountain Memory Gardens, Cross Lanes.

Lazear, Elizabeth - 7 p.m., Keller Funeral Home, Dunbar.

Masters, Delores - 1 p.m., Glen Ferris Apostolic Church, Glen Ferris.

Milroy, Miller - 11 a.m., Simons-Coleman Funeral Home, Richwood.

Petro, Edith - 11 a.m., Cunningham-Parker-Johnson Funeral Home, Charleston.

Phelps, Herbert - 2 p.m., Chapman Funeral Home, Hurricane.

Stanley, Gary - 1 p.m., Pryor Funeral Home, East Bank.

Stewart, Donna - 1 p.m., First United Methodist Church, South Charleston.

Walker, Iva - 1 p.m., Roush Funeral Home, Ravenswood.

Wilkinson, Catharine - Noon, Raynes Funeral Home, Eleanor Chapel.

Williams, Joseph - 3 p.m., Tyler Mountain Memory Gardens, Cross Lanes.