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

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.

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.

``They do what I did for years,'' says Joe Szakos of the Kentucky Fair Tax Coalition, a citizens' action group that has tested well water throughout the mountains for the last five years. ``When I came to work, I filled up a bunch of water jugs and took it home.''

Those who can afford it can buy drinking water at $2.19 for a 2-gallon jug. So many haul their water from stores or public water systems that trucking it out rural roads is a small business here. Those who cannot afford to buy it may collect water from abandoned mines, as Olgia Short does. Some families run pieces of pipe from old mines to their homes, gravity-feeding water of uncertain quality but steady supply.

``I've drunk mine water,'' Mr. VanHoose admits. ``I'm still here. But I don't know how good it is for you.''

Water supplies have been deteriorating steadily here for most of the century, as strip mining and oil and gas drilling increased, and population grew.

``We've been aware for a long time that people had poor water supplies or none or polluted,'' says Ann Anderson, public-information officer with the Appalachian Regional Commission, the federal agency formed in 1965 to aid the Appalachian region. But until the last 10 years, little has been done about the problem.

Then the federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 set standards for the effect of mining on water quality - even requiring that mining companies provide an alternate source of water to households who can prove that they lost their drinking water as a result of mine operations.

While ``there's not been a whole lot of cases where it has been proved,'' says Larry Grasch of the state Department for Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, he believes the law has prevented many cases of new water damage.

With the passage of the Clean Water Act of 1980, federal funding became available to begin cleaning up streams. Farmers Home Administration loans and Community Development Block Grants helped extend rural water lines.

And now, as federal funds are being cut, the state is for the first time proposing a revolving loan fund of $50 million for construction of rural water systems. ``There is definitely a trend to more people hooking onto the systems,'' says Pam Wood of the state Division of Water. But, she notes, ``it's a question of money.''

Many of those who are hauling water ``live in communities where everyone is hauling it, and they could get a water system if they could afford it,'' says Carol Lamm of the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development.

As of August, unemployment in the five-county Big Sandy area averaged 13.3 percent, more than twice the national rate. Some 25 percent of the families in the area live below the poverty level.

When the Appalachian Regional Commission first made money available for rural water systems, says Ms. Anderson, ``many small communities were too poor to raise the matching funds.'' Since 1982, the ARC has set aside special funds for distressed counties - including 36 in eastern Kentucky - without requiring matching money. In response to local requests, ``90 to 95 percent of that money has gone for rural water and sewage projects,'' Anderson says. But all agree that there are some homes, back in isolated hollows, that water systems will never reach.

Even in the unlikely event that a water line ran up Stills Creek Mountain, Merthie Short might not be able to hook on. Her sole cash income is supplemental social security. The most that pays anyone is $340 a month. She survives by growing most of her food, and by husbanding her limited resources.

``I've been pretty lucky to raise enough stuff to do,'' she says, walking through her house and pointing out boxes of potatoes, recently dug from her garden.

The boxes are stacked behind the chair in the living room, beneath the rack of clothes in the bedroom, and against the walls in the kitchen. There a big white deep freeze loaded with summer's vegetables is crowded up against a table covered with plastic jugs and buckets of tap water and rain water.

``When it gets bad, we won't be able to get up here to bring her stuff,'' says Nettie, referring to snow, and eyeing the stockpiles of water in the kitchen.

``You have to manage, make it do you if it's all you got,'' Short replies, straightening her back momentarily. ``I learned that when I was first housekeeping. You got to make do with what you got.''

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