The screen door of a now vacant house swings open on a windy but sunny day on Wyndcrest Drive in Daviess County.
The large front window of a place one couple called home for 50 years is gone. Inside sits a single chair and some forgotten decorations on the wall. This house is in the middle of an area prone to repetitive flooding.
Daviess County Emergency Management Director Andy Ball has another name for it.
“This is what we like to refer to, us and the county engineer, as the 'cereal bowl' of the neighborhood,” he said. “This is where all water, once it starts slowing down and backs up...this is where it all kind of flows out of the creek. This is the worst area down here.”
Many of the homes on Wyndcrest Drive have been inundated with water for years because of heavy rain. Ball secured a Federal Emergency Management Agency mitigation grant. The homes included in the project will be leveled, and FEMA guidelines say no structures can ever be built on that land again.
Federal funding made the Wyndcrest drive project possible, but the funding path for Kentucky’s drinking and wastewater systems is less clear.
Water means everything
In 2018, The American Water Infrastructure Act became law. One section of the law authorized $4.4 billion dollars in grants for the nation’s drinking water needs. Those grants are given out over the course of three years, but according to The American Society of Civil Engineers report card, Kentucky alone needs $15 billion of investment for its aging drinking and wastewater systems.
Age, however, isn’t the only thing having an effect on water infrastructure. Extreme weather events are also taking a toll.
“Heavy rain events in eastern Kentucky can lead to flash flooding and very short term flooding but as you head down toward the very central part of the state and especially the western part of the state, flooding can linger for very long periods of time,” said Mary Lamm, service hydrologist for the national weather forecast office in Paducah.
Lamm said a lot of people don’t think about the risks of flash flooding and backwater flooding. She said while Kentucky is a water rich state, more has to be done to properly conserve that resource.
“Water means everything to this state. It’s a matter of managing what we’ve got and what we can expect. There are things that are out of control but there are things that we can mediate,” she said.
Carey Johnson agrees with that sentiment. The Assistant Director for the Kentucky Division of Water said the increase in heavier rain events is putting stress on Kentucky’s water infrastructure.
“The biggest disaster that you may have from a flooding event may not be from the actual flood itself but from the impacts to the infrastructure after the floodwater recedes,” Johnson told WKU Public Radio.
Precipice of need
Johnson said the state’s wastewater systems can contribute contaminants to the water when it floods. He said that’s especially a risk for septic systems because they aren’t managed in the same central way that a sewer system is. Johnson added that while the vast majority of Kentuckians are connected to systems that deliver reliable drinking water, it’s a different picture for wastewater. Many Kentuckians rely on aging septic systems that are costly to repair or replace.
“So we’re really at the precipice of a dire need for addressing not only the drinking water, but also the wastewater systems that we do have throughout the commonwealth and the nation, because they are aging out,” he said.
Johnson said there are a lot of Kentuckians who have septic systems that are aging and in need of updates or repairs. He said people don’t think about what part their system plays in the overall picture of infrastructure needs in the state.
“And it certainly is a piece of infrastructure, septic systems are infrastructure and I don’t know that, that’s been communicated clearly to folks over the years,” he said.
Johnson said there isn’t a water system in the state that doesn’t have some kind of need for improvement.
“That’s one of the things that keep us up at night is the struggle is real to find the funding that we need to replace our infrastructure."
In part two of this series, we’ll look at how local water districts in our region are struggling to attract and retain the next generation of water operators.