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Kentucky’s rural water systems are struggling, lacking skilled labor and funding 

On the left side of a bridge, a large water pipe runs parallel to the bridge walls. It's in South Shore, Kentucky, crossing over the river from Ohio.
Ryan Van Velzer
/
LPM
The city of South Shore, Kentucky temporarily ran water over a bridge from the neighboring city of Portsmouth, Ohio, after its own water supply was found to be contaminated with PFAS chemicals.

Kentucky’s rural water systems face a complex series of challenges. Much of the state’s infrastructure is deteriorating. Many water utilities lack the necessary workforce, and the funding to upgrade their systems.

Coincidentally, J.D. Power recently named Kentucky’s tap water the best in the country based on customer feedback. But as Kentucky Rural Water Association Executive Director Scott Young told state lawmakers this week, that study could give a misleading impression of many of the state’s 432 public water systems.

“Many water systems were constructed decades ago. The components of these older, aging systems, such as pipelines, treatment plants, pump stations and storage facilities have reached or exceeded their useful life,” Young said.

The average age of a water treatment plant in Kentucky is 38 years old, the average water main is 40 years old, and the state still has an estimated 40,000 lead service lines.

Many of the state’s water utilities lack the rate structures and customer bases to cover the costs of repairs; they just don’t cover enough people to make up the difference. That results in deficient systems, deferred maintenance and a ballooning backlog of repairs. That deteriorating infrastructure has cascading impacts on water quality and reliability, Young said.

“Aging infrastructure can also be a deterrent to economic growth. This is typically due to a lack of capacity, reliability and redundancy of older infrastructure,” he said.

To fix it, Kentucky needs to spend more than $7.8 billion on water systems over the next 20 years, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

And it’s not just the infrastructure that’s aging, the workforce is aging, too. A survey from last year found only 20% of the state’s water utility workforce was under the age of 35. More than a third of operators and managers plan to retire in the next six years.

Already, more than half of the water and wastewater utilities in Kentucky do not have enough certified operators to meet the daily operational needs that exist today, Young said.

It’s also not going to get any cheaper in the future. The expenses water utilities incur to meet new regulations are only going to increase as the government begins to regulate emerging contaminants like PFAS chemicals, he said.

These chemicals, also known as ‘forever chemicals’, are linked to birth defects, certain kinds of cancer and a whole range of negative health outcomes. They’ve been found in drinking water systems throughout the state. The federal government is currently working through new regulations to limit their presence in the state’s drinking water.

“The end cost that’s going to go to ratepayers to comply with the emerging contaminants, it’s going to be tremendous,” he said. “But that ‘s not just an issue that’s going to impact Kentucky, that’s going to be a nationwide issue.”

Ryan Van Velzer is WFPL's Energy and Environment Reporter. Email Ryan at rvanvelzer@lpm.org.