More than 2 million Americans live without running water or home plumbing, and hundreds of them live in Alabama’s Black Belt.
Whether it’s Lowndes County residents who don’t have working sewage systems or Uniontown residents who are afraid to use their well water, problems exist across the region.
About 15 miles west of Selma in rural Dallas County, a community has never had running water. However, that will change in the coming months.
The West Dallas Water Authority has begun expanding its water treatment service to 69 homes and a church in the unincorporated community of Bogue Chitto. The project has been a long time coming as the Water Authority began helping residents of Bogue Chitto gain access to clean water over a decade ago. A $3.8 million investment from the US Department of Agriculture and support from the Dallas County Commission made the project possible.
“It was a nightmare for me because the idea of someone actually not having clean water to consume in 2022 was just beyond my imagination,” said Maggie Drake-Peterson, chairwoman of the West Dallas County Water Board. “I thank God that we made this possible.”
Drake-Peterson grew up in Orrville, just about seven miles from Bogue Chitto. She said she was always aware of the struggles in rural black belts, but never thought clean drinking water, a basic human necessity, was one of them.
It was only 12 years ago, when she retired from her position as a Michigan state judge and moved home, that Drake-Peterson discovered that Bogue Chitto and several other small communities did not have running water.
At that time, residents used either deep wells or hand-dug wells in their backyards to provide water for drinking, cooking, bathing, and everything else. This has been a tradition out of necessity since black landowners, many of whom were descendants of freed slaves, founded Bogue Chitto in the early 1900s.
When Drake-Peterson joined the West Dallas Water Board, she and the other board members heard reports of Bogue Chitto residents becoming ill after drinking their well water. They decided to do something.
“We ran tests in the area and found that the wells dried up and were contaminated during the summer,” Drake-Peterson said. “You read about these things happening in third world countries, but you don’t expect it to happen in the United States.”
In the decade since the tests were conducted, most residents have stopped using their wells altogether, according to Drake-Peterson.
Instead, they buy bottled water by the gallon.
It’s a practice that too many residents of other US cities like Jackson, Mississippi, and Flint, Michigan have also had to adopt in recent years. The people of these cities have received media attention for their struggles, while the hundreds of Black Belt residents have not.
When Flint switched its water supply from Detroit’s Lake Huron to the Flint River in 2014, images of the muddy water pouring from residents’ pipes filled newspapers and television screens across the country. Seeing these photos and videos spurred Drake-Peterson and other Dallas County leaders to increase their focus on helping Bogue Chitto.
“I knew what was happening here,” she said.
Looking for a way to fund the necessary expansion, Drake-Peterson and the other board members found the USDA’s Water and Waste Disposal Loan and Grant Program. To qualify, however, they had to get at least 90% of area residents to sign up and “agree to take the water,” Drake-Peterson said.
Building community support was the hardest part of the project for her.
“There’s been a lot of issues over the years with people being taken advantage of by companies and people saying they’re going to do one thing and do another,” Drake-Peterson said. “We had to let them know who we are first, you know? And keep showing up to answer their questions and allay their fears. We needed to let them know that we are there to help them and not to hurt or take advantage of them.”
After several years and many community question and answer meetings, the support was there. Construction on the extension began on November 7th and is expected to be completed by July 5th.
“We continually strive to help our rural neighbors provide essential resources like clean drinking water so rural Alabama remains the place where you want to live and raise a family,” said Nivory Gordon, USDA Alabama Rural Director of Development.
Gordon attended the groundbreaking ceremony for the project along with members of the Water Board and many other Dallas County leaders.
In a press release from Gordon’s office, the USDA said that access to running water will also allow the county to install new fire hydrants in rural areas like Bogue Chitto.
Although only 69 homes will have running water, the USDA predicts that over 20,000 rural Dallas County residents will benefit from the project.
As construction continues over the next eight months and residents of Bogue Chitto continue to drink their bottled water, Drake-Peterson said she still thanks God the running water is on its way.
Hadley Hitson covers the rural South for the Montgomery Advertiser and Report for America. She can be reached at[email protected]. To support their work subscribe to the advertiser or Donation to Report for America.