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Every Drop Counts. Pure water is at a premium for families in the mountains of eastern Kentucky

By Nancy HerndonSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / November 30, 1987

Garrett, Ky.

ON a wet afternoon in a hollow on Stills Creek Mountain, Merthie Short pulls a chair up close to her coal stove. She listens to the satisfying sound of rain banging on her tin roof. ``I caught up a lot of rain water,'' she shouts, smiling. Outside, water sheeting off her roof pours like a waterfall through a piece of gutter into a washtub. It splashes off the corners of the house into five-gallon buckets, and drips steadily off the overhang into pans that line the wooden porch.

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Every drop of water Mrs. Short catches from the rain is one drop less that will have to be hauled to her house, for like many in eastern Kentucky, she is hills and valleys away from a public water line. The water that sporadically collects in her well is subject to fouling with bacteria, sulfur, natural gas, metals, or brine.

The rugged, rocky land never gave much besides coal, and even that it gave at a price. Years of blasting and strip mining have fouled 43 percent of mountain streams, according to the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development in Berea, Ky. Drilling for oil and gas, and poor sewage disposal in rural communities, have added to the contamination that seeps through porous sandstone into the ground water.

Now some estimate that as much as half of underground water in eastern Kentucky is contaminated. Samples of well water have had metals in concentrations 200 times as high as standards for safe drinking water. The state Division of Water reports that unsafe levels of bacteria in wells are widespread.

Families who have had good wells for years can lose them in one day, as blasting for mining operations shifts the course of swift underground streams. And while no one knows just how many families are affected by poor water quality, in 21 mountain counties 60 percent of families are too poor or are scattered too far into the hills to hook onto public water lines. If their wells foul or go dry, they must turn to hauled water, rainwater, mine water, or streams. For many, getting clean drinking water is a daily chore.

``I keep my mother supplied with water all the time,'' says Bobby Short. Nearly every day in spring, summer, and fall, Bobby or his wife, Nettie, haul jugs of water from their house on the Garrett public water system up the mountain to Merthie Short.

Not that they can actually drive to her house. They park their car beside the paved road, in a parking space leveled there at the head of the hollow, near the little log house where Bobby's sister, Olgia, lives. A good 100 feet below, the roof of Merthie's house shines out of a clearing. On weekends, Bobby and Nettie's children - Tracey, 12, and Janey, 10 - help haul water down the treacherous path, more a rock slide than a road, that leads to Short's door.

Apart from electricity and a telephone, the way of life in this house has changed little in half a century. A pile of coal, half covered with plastic, stands in the yard. An outhouse below the garden serves in lieu of indoor plumbing. The terraced garden plot supplies vegetables that Short puts up to last through the winter, when snows block off the hollow for weeks. The sagging porch, supported by posts gray with age but still wearing their original bark, is choked with water buckets, pans, and crates of empty bottles. Out of this clutter Short emerges to greet her grandchildren with a hug, the way people greet even acquaintances in this remote place.

Nettie takes care of her mother-in-law's laundry, carrying it down the mountain to wash it in a washing machine. But Short still collects rainwater for washing dishes, the floor, and herself, pouring it from tubs into tightly lidded buckets that she drags from the porch into her small kitchen.

``She's been a worker in her time,'' comments Bobby, one of 10 children.

Olgia Short hauls her water herself, bringing it up the mountain in her car. She gets drinking water from Bobby's house, where city water service costs between $10 and $20 a month. For washing, she collects the water that trickles out of an abandoned mine near Garrett.

There is nothing considered unusual here about the way the Shorts get their water. ``That's the way they do it here in the mountains,'' says John VanHoose of the Big Sandy Area Development District in Prestonburg. He manages a nonprofit water system that runs to rural communities. ``If they can't afford to tie on to the system, or aren't close enough to tie on even if they could afford it, mostly they carry it from their relatives,'' he explains.