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Marion residents hear updates about ongoing state efforts to address water shortage

Marion residents filled their city hall for the Thursday city council meeting.
Liam Niemeyer
Marion residents filled their city hall for the Thursday city council meeting.

Residents in the small western Kentucky city of Marion heard updates from state officials Thursday evening about potential short-term and long-term solutions to the community’s critical water shortage. Some of the more than 40 people at the special-called city council meeting also shared their frustration at what they see as slow progress at trying to solve the ongoing emergency.

State officials spoke to the crowd including Kentucky Division of Water Director Carey Johnson, who detailed the state’s five-pronged strategy to tackle the water shortage:

  • Ongoing community tap water conservation
  • The ongoing distribution of bottled water
  • Getting water from other utilities such as the Crittenden-Livingston Water District
  • Having the Kentucky National Guard and a local farm haul raw water from the Tradewater River to boost the city’s supply
  • Working on an engineering plan to lay down an emergency water line to get water from the nearby Union County city of Sturgis

Johnson said getting water from Sturgis is only a short-term solution to potentially supply water to the community of a little under 3,000 people in the months ahead. One of the long-term water supply options – rebuilding the Lake George levee and refilling the lake – could take three to five years and cost millions of dollars.
“The connection out of Sturgis, based on our preliminary estimates and also the preliminary engineering…is the quickest way to get the water in so that we can again address the ongoing emergency,” Johnson said.

Marion is facing this water shortage in part because of a decision made by city and county officials to breach the levee for Lake George – the city’s main water source – in late April. Local officials feared that a growing sinkhole in the levee at that time could cause the levee to fail, unleashing more than 180 million gallons of water that could have potentially endangered the city. The breaching of the levee drained a year’s worth of water supply, and the city’s remaining water reservoir has remained severely low.

Marion City Administrator Adam Ledford said preliminary consulting work with engineering firm Bacon Farmer Workman shows about 54 million gallons of water could again be stored in the Lake George basin. He said Crittenden-Livingston Water District has been providing enough water to supply about half of the city’s daily water usage over the past week.

Community questions and frustrations

Throughout the public meeting, Marion residents asked questions and shared concerns about ongoing state efforts to address the emergency. Community members who spoke, including 61-year-old Mike Harris, are frustrated with how they’ve been asked to conserve tap water for weeks. He’s been using bottled water that’s being distributed in the community.

“I got to flush my commode and I've got to wash my clothes,” Harris said. “Why can we not do that? Why can we not concentrate on getting water to use for other things?”

The city since last week has been under a boil water advisory, asking residents to use bottled water for cooking and drinking or boil tap water for three minutes before use.

One resident asked why some community members have reported having muddy water come out of their faucets. Kentucky Division of Water environmental scientist Jackie Logsdon said the water levels at the city’s remaining reservoir, Old City Lake, are low enough that the water may be discolored. Logsdon said using unboiled tap water to wash dishes, as long as one adds some bleach to the water, is safe. Those who are immunocompromised and concerned about bathing in tap water, the staff member said, should consult with their healthcare provider.

Another resident asked about what costs to the city that emergency actions, such as Kentucky National Guard tanker trucks hauling water, might have. Kentucky Emergency Management Director Jeremy Slinker said all the efforts have a significant cost, but the state’s priority is making sure the city doesn’t run out of water.

“The emergency interconnections that we're looking at and working on and being engineered, that Director [Carey] Johnson mentioned, is kind of what we're looking to replace the hauling of water,” Slinker said.

Slinker said there isn’t an estimated timeline yet for when emergency water lines, such as to the city of Sturgis, would be constructed.

Another city resident said he’s worried about the impact the water shortage is already having on the small town. Austin Valentine Jr., who’s running for Marion Mayor, said he’s heard from residents who say communication on city and state actions has been lacking in past weeks.

“These people are worried. There's people talking about packing up and moving out of town. There's people that’s talking about listing real estate,” Valentine Jr. said. “We’re at mission critical, and we need some transparency.”

Valentine Jr. said he appreciated the work city and state officials are doing to address the emergency but that he wants city leadership to keep an open mind about suggestions made by residents on what to do.

"Liam Niemeyer is a reporter for the Ohio Valley Resource covering agriculture and infrastructure in Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia and also serves Assistant News Director at WKMS. He has reported for public radio stations across the country from Appalachia to Alaska, most recently as a reporter for WOUB Public Media in Athens, Ohio. He is a recent alumnus of Ohio University and enjoys playing tenor saxophone in various jazz groups."
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