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The Charleston Gazette- Mail published this editorial on May 25:

Politicians can talk all they want about bringing reliable, affordable broadband service to West Virginia or fixing the state’s roads to make it more attractive to new businesses. Those are truly valid concerns.

But what does it say about a state when so many of its public water systems are in such disrepair, that about 25% of the water taken in, treated and pumped out, never makes it to a faucet? A Gazette-Mail analysis found that more than $14 million was spent last year on treating and processing water that didn’t reach the customer because of leaks or other failures in 261 of the state’s 295 public water systems. Twenty-eight of those systems reported water loss of 50% or higher.

That’s a tremendous amount of water and money wasted, but it also points to a massive public health concern, because water that does get through in more dilapidated systems is often contaminated with dirt or other material. Clean water is one of the most basic necessities for human health and survival, and, in some West Virginia communities, it’s a rare commodity. That’s unacceptable.

This isn’t a new problem, though. Many of the public water systems in West Virginia are very old. In more rural parts of the state, they were often constructed by coal companies or other extraction operations, and might never have been maintained all that well but have certainly been left to rot after a mining operation closed or a company pulled up stakes as the industry declined. Many of these systems aren’t properly mapped. System operators are doing a lot of guesswork in finding a leak, and often don’t have the manpower or resources to make necessary upgrades or repairs.

It’s not just a rural concern. Charleston has aging pump stations that are sometimes problematic, resulting in water pressure issues or boil-water advisories. Other West Virginia cities have their unique issues, as well.

A state where clean, reliable water service can be a crapshoot isn’t in a great position to keep the residents it has, let alone appear attractive to new residents or new business investments.

The lack of resources to remedy the situation only makes it worse the longer the problem goes unaddressed. It’s estimated it would take $18 billion to properly fix, update and maintain every public water system in West Virginia. That’s up $1 billion from an estimate cited in 2017.

Kicking the can down the road just makes the problem more expensive, but when the money to fix the problem has never been there, it’s hard to tell the people who operate and maintain these systems what to do.

Perhaps the proposed American Jobs Plan could help, merging money for fixes with money to hire people to do the work and maintain the systems. The federal plan is at an impasse, but it’s going to take something like that to really address the water problem in a meaningful way in West Virginia. Without a major initiative, be it federal, state or some kind of public/private partnership, these insufficient systems are going to continue to crumble, while the price tag to make it right continues to go up, and people continue to suffer.

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