Rural and Small-Town Water Systems are in Trouble

Affiliated Media Foundation Movement Biden Radio Water

            Little Rock       Sometimes, I’m on top of the news and other times, the news seems to be on top of me.  The Affiliated Media Foundation Movement (AM/FM) worked with a lot of partners and made many new friends as we assisted local communities in filing for low-power FM radio stations recently when the FCC opened the window for applications.  On my monthly run to Arkansas, I was scheduled to meet with some of them including the deputy mayor in Eudora, in the southeastern part of the state, the sparkplug behind the application in Helena-West Helena in the eastern part of the state along the Mississippi River, and our brilliant engineer in the Ozarks Mountains near Marshall.

Stopping early in the morning fog and light rain in Eudora, I met in City Hall with the deputy mayor, Elijah Jackson, who has worked with us in trying to bring a radio station to the community.  As we finished our meeting on next steps, I reminded him that the city had offered space for a studio in addition to allowing the antenna to be on top of their water tower.  We jumped in his pickup, so that he could show me what they had in mind.  On the way, he pulled up to talk to a supervisor with the water department.  Listening, it was easy to suss out the problem.  They were trying to figure out when a part would be delivered to fix a major pump and how long it might take.  As we pulled off, I asked Elijah what was up.  It turned out that a part on the pump broke during the recent freeze, and they had been running the water filtration system on a backup for a week.  The water was getting increasingly discolored, so they were running against the clock, knowing citizens would be in arms soon without a solution.

While waiting in front of city hall, I had texted Andrew Bagley to firm up our meeting in Little Rock the next day for me to show him our operation at KABF and make plans for the Helena station.  Checking my phone, he said he was going to have to cancel.  He was head of the local housing authority and 1000 residents there had no water for the last week, and they were still trying to fix the problem.  Wow!  I hadn’t heard anything about this.  Further, back and forth from Bagley indicated this could last for weeks.

A quick look on the internet later revealed that…

The mayor of Helena-West Helena said there is a “major water leak” which means around 40% of people are currently without water in that area.

I could do the math.  With a population over 9100, 40% would be 3640.  This problem was bigger than just in the lower-income housing project.  In checking on the system, city officials had found a broken valve in a critical area.  The Arkansas National Guard had been activated to bring in water tankers and set up distribution at the sheriff’s offices and other locations for bottled water.  Showers and laundry were still on the “to-do” lists.

A little more scrolling turned up the fact that this water problem is not a new one in this Mississippi Delta town.  Over the summer, water had been down for a week. In one report, As our partner and the publisher of the local paper, the Helena World, Andrew Bagley both lived through and reported on West Helena’s faucets running dry.

“We began a six-day period where five of those days we were without water at all,” Bagley said. “You couldn’t flush a toilet or take a shower… it was third-world country kind of conditions. If it had not been for the governor’s order to bring the National Guard over here, we wouldn’t have had access. We would have had to go somewhere else.”

President Biden’s Infrastructure Act took a step towards dealing with these kinds of issues, but here I was running into two towns, one with less than 2000 population and the other with over 9000, both in crisis.  My day in the rain and fog in the aftermath of the freeze would likely be multiplied by hundreds with the same problem and thousands that just missed largely by luck.  Some thought the IRA was too big.  They need to take a drive like mine.  The IRA was too small by hundreds of billions!

How often do we know in big cities what is happening in our countryside?  In a small way, it’s also easy to see why these communities want a local, community noncommercial radio station.  They need it to communicate with each other.  They need one to be able to find out about city services and support.  They also need to link with a network of similar stations, like AM/FM is trying to assemble, in order to get the word out.

A lot of work needs to be done.