If you don’t know exactly where the Tompkinsville water plant is you probably won’t be able to find it.
I drive past a high school, over a bridge and take a left into a narrow driveway. Down the hill, a small gray building comes into view. Walking up the road is Jonathan Shaw, the supervisor of this small water plant. He said he’s proud to be the one responsible for delivering clean, potable water to the people of Tompkinsville.
“I tell people all the time...I say I’m the water boy,” Shaw said.
Kentucky is a water-rich state, with 90,000 miles of rivers, lakes, and streams. So managing that resource is important, and the Commonwealth is struggling to find people to operate water treatment plants. Some operators are even coming out of retirement to train people in other districts.
Shaw, 39, said he’s one of the youngest individuals at the required water plant operator certification classes.
“You’re looking at people that are getting ready to retire and there’s going to be a need for, for operators and where’s it going to come from?” he asked.
Kentucky has 430 water treatment plants and most of the people in charge of these water systems are nearing retirement. There aren’t many people in line ready to take over for them. It can be difficult to get people interested in a field that can’t pay much because salaries are dependent on water rates set by small municipalities with limited budgets. Retired water operators are even being pulled out of retirement to train replacements in different areas of the state.
Coming Out of Retirement
David Goodrum worked at the Glasgow water plant for 35 years. About a year into retirement he got a call from the state asking if he would consider coming out of retirement to help Tompkinsville’s water district, 30 miles south of Glasgow.
“The city had gotten problems, got in trouble and they were looking to solve problems and somebody in Frankfort gave them my name to call and she called and said would you be willing to talk to the mayor?” he said.
Goodrum said the expense of aging infrastructure makes it difficult for small districts like Tompkinsville to comply with state and federal regulations. He said help should come from the branch of government passing costly mandates.
“I’m going to say that’s fine, but you’re going to have to give funding so those small systems can redo their infrastructure and update their treatment plants to newer technology to meet those new standards,” he said.
Goodrum said Tompkinsville has had additional challenges finding funding. He said the Tompkinsville plant used to serve all of Monroe County until the county built its own water plant. Goodrum said the Tompkinsville plant lost about two-thirds of its budget as a result, and it's been hard to get local support for more funding.
“It really bugs me because cell phones are in every hand of just about every individual, and I guarantee you your cell phone bill is about three times higher than your water bill. But you raise your water rates by $1 a month and people throw a fit,” he said.
Goodrum said another problem is that people don’t understand where their water comes from or how important it is to have it treated.
“I’ve had people say, 'Well I can go down here in the creek', and I said, 'Well go right ahead, enjoy your time, because you’re gonna not leave that house for a few days,'” he said. “Especially here in south central Kentucky with the karst topography. I’ve tested wells, I’ve tested springs, I’ve tested any type of water you can test coming out of the ground in this part of the state and I’ve never tested one without E. Coli in them. Never.”
Next In Line?
Staffing water treatment plants and locating funding for improvements is a problem across the state. The Assistant Director of Kentucky’s Division of Water Carey Johnson said there isn’t a water system in the state that doesn’t need some type of improvement.
“While we do have a very good set of operators in our systems now, they very much are aging and there necessarily hasn't been the next man up identified,” Johnson said.
Johnson said the state needs to be more innovative and embrace the digital world when it comes to training. The Labor Cabinet has been trying to work with Big Sandy Community and Technical College to create and recruit people for a water plant operator apprenticeship. So far the program is only in the discussion stage.