For 95 percent of Kentuckians, clean drinking water is as close as the kitchen or bathroom sink. Except during a rare boil-water advisory, many of us don’t even think twice about what it took to make this critical utility so dependable.
We should, though, because it didn’t happen by accident. It took decades of planning and hard work, billions of dollars and a diligence to make sure every gallon we use meets the same high standards every single day.
To get a better idea of where we stand, and what more needs to be done, the General Assembly authorized the Public Water and Wastewater System Infrastructure Task Force earlier this year.
During its first meeting late last month, officials with the state’s Energy and Environment Cabinet gave legislators a good overview of these two systems. A lot has changed over the past 40 to 50 years, not surprisingly, and much of it can be summed up in one word: consolidation.
In the mid-1970s, for example, there were nearly 2,200 public water suppliers; now, there are 432. They cover nearly all of the state, although there are still pockets, mainly in Eastern Kentucky and far Western Kentucky, where they have yet to reach.
Kentuckians use about 136 billion gallons of clean water each year, with our homes accounting for three-fourths of that. Overall, each of us uses 75 gallons per day.
That water is filtered at our 213 treatment plants, distributed over 64,000 miles of water lines and stored in 1,800 tanks. This infrastructure has been in place at least a quarter of a century on average, and 16 percent of waterlines have been in the ground for 50 or more years.
It’s a similar story for our public wastewater systems, which serve about 60 percent of Kentuckians.
At some point, all of this equipment will have to be improved or replaced. The Energy and Environment Cabinet estimates the cost for this work over the next 20 years at $14.5 billion, and this will come from a mixture of local, state and federal government sources as well as rate payments from customers themselves.
In recent years, we’ve seen some unfortunate examples of what can happen when there is no clean water available. These public-health crises have occurred in places like Flint, Michigan, and in our own Martin County.
Back in March, the Public Service Commission opened an investigation into those water utilities that lose a substantial portion of their water before it even arrives at our homes and businesses. Generally, the goal is to have losses of no more than 15 percent, but some systems are losing twice as much if not more due to such things as leaking lines.
As the cabinet officials noted in their presentation, the need to update all of our water and wastewater systems is not a question of if, but when. The longer we wait, the more expensive it will be, especially if there is an emergency.
My hope is that this task force will lay the groundwork to properly take on this challenge in the years ahead. It may seem expensive now, but we know the cost of inaction is higher.
As always, let me know if you have any questions or comments about this issue or any other affecting Kentucky. My email firstname.lastname@example.org, and the toll-free message line for legislators is 800-372-7181. For those with a hearing impairment, the number is 800-896-0305.
Thanks for all you do and holler anytime.