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With new grant, some Ohioans will get direct water access for first time

A man in a black t-shirt and sunglasses fills up a 300-gallon tank with water. The tank is fastened to a flatbed trailer.
Erin Gottsacker
The Ohio Newsroom
Garrett Betts fills up a 300-gallon tank with water from a nearby vending site. He hauls water like this about twice a week because his home is not connected to a water line.

Vinton County in southeast Ohio was awarded $5.8 million in state funding last month to connect about a hundred people with a resource more basic than broadband: water.

Of the county’s approximately 5,000 households, roughly a third aren’t connected to a water service.

“These people, they're fairly desperate for drinking water,” said Larry Foster, the general manager for the Jackson County Water Company. It serves parts of neighboring Vinton County too, and is tasked with using the grant to extend water service to more residents there.

The grant comes from the Ohio BUILDS water infrastructure program, which has allocated nearly $500 million in federal COVID relief funds to water projects across the state.

Vinton County’s grant is one of the largest.

Many residents there have spent decades trying to get connected to a water line, but Foster says the region’s terrain is so hilly and the population so spread out, that connecting people to water just hasn’t been financially feasible.

“It would just put too much of a debt load on the individuals in Vinton County,” he said.

Instead, those individuals are left to get water on their own.

A decade of hauling water

That’s the story of Garrett Betts’ life.

He’s lived on the same street in Vinton County since the day he was born. For years, Garrett says his family relied on a well, but it kept drying up and the water quality was abysmal.

“It doesn't seem like a big deal to have to haul water. But if you have to do it as much as we do, it's a lot.”
Jenny Betts, Vinton County resident

“The water, it's full of iron and sulfur, so it would change the toilets and bathtubs orange and just have a rotten egg smell,” he said.

So, about a decade ago, Garrett changed tactics.

Now, twice a week, he hitches a trailer with a 300-gallon water tank to his truck and hits the road.

“I've been hauling water for, I think this is probably my 10th year,” he said, on the drive down a steep hill to a nearby fire station. It has a water vending site where he and some of his neighbors get their water.

“Now, we’ve just got to hook it up and put some quarters in,” he said, pulling in. “It’s a penny a gallon.”

Two dollars and seventy-five cents later, Garrett drives the full tank back home and empties it into a cistern where his family rations it out until he can go again.

“I have to be careful how many loads of laundry I do,” said Jenny Betts, Garrett’s wife. “I have to think, ‘When did Garrett haul last?’ before I can calculate how many loads of laundry I can do.”

And it’s not just laundry. She thinks twice about taking a bath after a 12-hour shift at work or letting their 3-year-old daughter splash in a kiddy pool.

“We have to worry about water for that as well,” she said. “It doesn't seem like a big deal to have to haul water. But if you have to do it as much as we do, it's a lot.”

How grant funding can help

Back in his office at the Jackson County Water Company, Larry Foster points to a color-coded map. Blue lines show working pipes. Red are pipes that need to be upgraded.

But there are swaths of the map with no colored lines at all.

 A map shows with blue, red and orange lines shows water infrastructure in Vinton County
Erin Gottsacker
The Ohio Newsroom
A color-coded map of Vinton County shows how the county will use the $5.8 million grant to improve water infrastructure.

“None of these people have water,” Foster said. “And so we're trying to get to a point where you can't say that these people don't have water. Now, that's going to be a long, laborious task.”

The $5.8 million grant is a start.

Some of that money will be used to replace existing pumps and pipes with bigger ones. Foster says that will increase the capacity of the entire system, so that it can carry water to those blank spaces on the map.

Then, Foster says the remaining funds will be used to start laying new water lines.

But according to the current plan, those won’t reach very far — just enough to connect 24 more homes to the water service.

Expansion beyond that will take even more money.

“But even though we may not be getting a lot more customers, without doing this [initial work], there's no hope to get this or this or this or this,” Foster said, pointing to unserved areas on the map. “And these kinds of problems can only be solved with money. I hate to be mercenary about it, but that's the truth. In order to extend these lines, it just takes a lot of funds.”

The Betts are in luck. They’re one of the 24 homes that should soon be connected to water.

But Garrett still isn’t hopeful.

He’s been promised water several times in his 29 years of life. And it hasn’t come yet.

Erin Gottsacker is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently reported for WXPR Public Radio in the Northwoods of Wisconsin.