After years of failed attempts, a water line extension for residents in southern Kanawha County is gaining more traction than it ever has before.
The project would connect almost 200 residents in Olcott to West Virginia American Water’s centralized Kanawha Valley system. The community, which houses about 166 structures, currently receives water through wells on individuals’ property.
Some who live in the area, like Freddy Berry, say their water quality is fine, but wells often run dry, especially in the summer. This leaves families like Berry’s without running water, sometimes for months-long stretches.
“The water in our spring is great. We’re lucky, but we don’t have the quantity,” Berry said. “Sometimes, even if it’s not [dry], you could run out of water after taking one shower and doing some dishes.”
Others though, abstain from the water all together. Roxanna and Gary Eller have lived in Olcott for about 20 years.
“The water when we first moved here, it was still from the well and it wasn’t bad,” Roxanna said. “We don’t touch it now, though. We don’t even cook with it, and we haven’t for a long while.”
It smells like sewage, she said, sometimes raw sewage. The region, in addition to not having central water hookups, also doesn’t have central sewage hookups.
Gary Eller believes septic tanks in their neighborhood are leaking into the ground, contaminating his well water and potentially others, too.
“It used to be just iron, and you can take care of iron. But I got that water tested, so we know what’s in it now, and what’s in it is nothing we should be drinking,” Gary Eller said.
Because of the water quality, Roxanna Eller said they are tasked with trucking water home for anything other than bathing. Though they use the water to shower, Gary Eller said he spends as little time as possible in the water.
The Ellers said this is far from the first time promises have been made to connect them and their neighbors to centralized water service.
Brooks Crislip, head of business development at West Virginia American Water, said the company was involved in these previous attempts, but for various reasons, none came to fruition.
“They’ve tried, we’ve tried, but this is by far the closest we’ve come,” Crislip said.
To make the project reality, the Kanawha County Commission needs to get 145 households to sign up to be connected to the system. As of Thursday night, there were about 90 signed up.
Those who sign up now will have their $300 tap fee waived, County Commissioner Lance Wheeler told residents at a community meeting Thursday night. In order to move forward, the commission needs to get the 145 to sign up as soon as possible
“I want to stress this: we need your involvement in this. This is the closest we’ve been, and we’re at a breaking point,” Wheeler said. “In a valley like this, we know people are more likely to talk to their neighbors. So talk to your neighbors about this, get them to sign up if they haven’t, and we can make this happen.”
The entire project cost is estimated to be about $6.99 million, which commissioners said last week will be covered from an industrial development bond.
Potesta & Associates will head the project, which will consist of laying 13 miles of new piping and 27 fire hydrants in the Olcott Area and Sand Plant Road, starting near the Corridor G and Brounland Road intersection.
Crislip said this is the kind of project the company is excited to take on.
“It allows us to reach customers who are harder to reach,” Crislip said. “It’s a good opportunity to help people.”
This project is the latest of many that have seen American Water extend its Kanawha Valley reach. Two weeks ago, the company and the Town of Cedar Grove reached an agreement for acquisition, two months before that American Water completed its takeover of nearby East Bank’s water system and last fall Glasgow opted to sell off its water assets to the company as well.
Now, there is only one publicly owned water utility in Kanawha County: St. Albans Municipal Water.
Critics of American Water want to see public takeover of the company’s water services, an initiative that began after the 2015 water crisis, when the company failed to deactivate its intake facilities after the chemical spill into the Elk River. Crislip said he didn’t worry about the potential risks and stressors that could come with having one large utility in the region. The size gives them more flexibility and resources, he said.
“We’re just able to do things smaller, struggling utilities or regions can’t sometimes,” Crislip said. “We have funding and manpower — resources — that allow us to maintain and improve our infrastructure.”
There are challenges, though, no matter the resources available. The topography around Olcott — mountainous — makes the project more difficult. Water infrastructure projects are pricey in general, but even more so if they involve cutting through mountains, Crislip said.
Customers served by the extension, if it’s completed, will be American Water customers, and their rates would likely be set to match the rest of the Kanawha Valley’s rates, though it’s a bit early to be sure, Crislip said.
Residents in the region currently don’t pay a water bill, as they rely on their wells.
Melody McCormick, who lives in Olcott, said she is a bit worried to see what effect new expense will have for her and her neighbors, but she’s excited nonetheless.
“I’m just tickled we’re getting it out here,” McCormick said. “There’s so much need.”
McCormick owns her property, and the extension — plus installing hydrants and meters — is expected to increase the property value in the area while also decreasing property insurance costs, which are often higher in places without water services.
“That will be nice, and a long time coming,” McCormick said.
Deborah Baire-Morgan, another resident, said she’s been waiting 40 years for someone to follow through with the promise of centralized water. This time, she said, she hopes it actually comes to fruition.
“I know some places here — the end of the holler — the water’s really bad, and it’s been really bad. It doesn’t matter though, we out here get ignored or forgotten,” Baire-Morgan said. “We’re like second class citizens out here — it makes you feel like less when you look at something like water or broadband as a luxury when, for everyone else, it’s a need. We have the same needs.”