How hard is it to get water in some parts of rural America? Ask the residents along the Ruleville-Drew Road in Sunflower County, Mississippi. They've been waiting seven years.
When an 800-foot well that had been their sole source of water began spitting up Mississippi sand almost seven years ago, the ten homeowners on an outlying road in Sunflower County resorted to other means.
They filled jars and jugs from relatives’ water taps and at a self-service laundry in the city of Ruleville, six minutes away by car. They began buying bottled water in bulk from a regional big-box store.
Seven years later, they still don’t have potable water. There are plans now to extend water lines to these ten homes, but the water isn’t there yet.
Ninety-seven percent of Mississippians do have public drinking water. That a handful of residents do not reflects part of a broader issue confronting rural communities, in particular, around the country. The West Virginia University-based National Environmental Services Center, which tracks the issue, last estimated that 2 million people across the country have insufficient water and 690,000 have no running water at all.
After their well gave out, the homeowners along Ruleville-Drew Road, with its mish-mash of trailers, bricked and clapboard abodes, identified a reservoir in a different neighbor’s yard. On that spot they carved out a 100-foot well. They erected a 10-foot tall storage tank, swaddled it in fiberglass insulation and electrician’s tape, then jerryrigged a network of pipes under backyards, frontyards and the asphalt road. The water is fit for housecleaning and washing, but not for drinking.
“We dug and dug and dug till we was wore out,” said Robert Martin, 71, retired from maintenance work in a local industrial laboratory. The 800-foot well had been on his land.
With his walking cane, he traced the geography of the makeshift pipeline and explained how it was laid. He pointed out the chest-high water treatment machines that those among the ten families who can afford it are using to soften the well water. The softening machines use 40 pound bags of salt retrieved from Greenville, 50 miles away.
“If you don’t (soften the water)… it’s going to turn brown in your bathtub,” said Jenise Davis, whose ruptured disc is aggravated by having to haul water. Her lingering fear, she added, is that her visiting grandchildren will mistakenly drink from her home’s faucets.
Ever since the old Martin well went bone dry in the Spring of 2003, Davis, Martin and the others on the Ruleville-Drew Road have been clamoring to hook into one of the municipal or privately run water systems surrounding them. There is one muncipal line that stops just a mile short of the ten homes, but the state can’t force water suppliers to extend their lines. (The state Department of Health web site does post helpful “boil water” alerts, when it’s necessary to sanitize their tap water.) Bringing water to Ruleville-Drew Road had never been viewed as cost-effective for water suppliers.
Last October, however, the U.S. Department of Agriculture earmarked $414,000 toward piping water to the ten homes and 70 other nearby households that also lacked a supply of potable water. The federal agency’s regional office is negotiating with the City of Ruleville, Sunflower County, the Mississippi Development Authority and the Delta Regional Development Authority. Each must contribute toward the entire $677,000 tab before this proposed project can get fully underway. (The City of Ruleville would be providing the actual water.) The entire project would require 12 miles of water line, and the project is still is subject to an environmental study by the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality.
“We are working very closely with the engineers as we speak,” said Bettye Oliver, program director for the USDA’s Rural Development Office in Jackson. “There are plans and specifications that have to be approved by the health department. But we are working closely with our engineers. We will make every effort to ensure that these residents get safe, sanitary water as quickly as possible. This is the first step. This is a very rural area.”
Ken Stribling, a regional USDA spokesman, told the Daily Yonder, “We see this as a success story.”
Martin and his neighbors are taking an I’ll-believe-it-when-I-see-it stance to what that combination of agencies is promising. “I haven’t heard anything directly from anybody about what’s going on exactly,” Martin said. “I’m very doubtful that we will get water out here before June, July or August. Waiting has been real hard on us. It has cost us a whole lot.”
With $15,000 from his retirement savings he is paying a private firm to install an underground piping system on his property that he hopes will provide a longer-term stream of water for his household and the other nine. “As soon as the weather breaks,” he said, citing the unusual cold that has ripped through the South this winter, “the folks digging this deep well for me are going to come and finish. I look at it like us needing another truck or another car. It’s just another tool. You tell yourself some things to keep from feeling so down and out. That’s the way I have to let it roll around in my mind.”
His neighbors are trying to make sense of why they are deprived of what they deem to be a fundamental necessity.
“We’re sitting here in the middle and everybody around us got water,” said Jeanette Watson, whose backyard hosts the new, 100-foot well. “You go two miles down the road and the guy down there is on water. And the lady here right in the curve is on water, about a fourth of a mile down. I don’t know what it is. A lack of interest?”