Water inaccessibility in rural Tennessee

Water inaccessibility in rural Tennessee

"If you go down to Harrison spring, 70 percent of the time it's going to show up as either fecal or E. coli positive," says Ben Beavers, General Manager of the Sewanee Utility District (SUD).

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It is a shocking and sobering reality that, given the degree of America’s development, many American families in the twenty-first century do not have access to clean water — or water at all. For many rural communities around Sewanee: The University of the South, a Liberal Arts University in Tennessee, this is their daily reality.

In two such enclaves, Dancing Fern Road in Marion County, and Keith Springs, obtaining tap water has been a decades-long battle. Because of their rural location, and because many of the individuals who comprise these communities have meager monetary means, creating water infrastructure is much less economically feasible than it might be in other communities. But they face another challenge independent of their financial ability or rural situation: they live in the mountains.

The rock formations which typify the Cumberland Plateau (where these communities are situated), as Ben Beavers, General Manager of the Sewanee Utility District (SUD) explains, are not water bearing. To drill a well requires drilling two to four-hundred feet deep.

In the absence of easy solutions to the challenges that these communities face, Haley Tucker, a senior Sustainability Fellow at Sewanee committed to Environmental Justice, has made it her aim to document and collect not only water samples but also stories and injustices, that communities local to Sewanee face.

“I hope that by documenting and interviewing the trials that these rural community members face, I can bring their stories into public attention,” said Tucker. “It is unacceptable that hundreds of families near Sewanee and Chattanooga don’t have access to clean water — but I trust in the power of storytelling as a way to motivate change, and that is what my Sustainability Fellow project is all about.”


“The story is that an E. coli contamination was the impetus for getting the people living near Jumpoff road their water,” explained Beavers. Jumpoff road was a site near Sewanee without access to water, and this was in the early 1980s, a decade after the formation of the EPA. The SUD was spending money it didn’t have. The SUD went bankrupt until, years later, they raised rates by 80% and began charging Jumpoff road residents a surcharge.

“As a resident of Jumpoff, I think it was a great idea [to put in the Jumpoff road infrastructure]. As a financial investment, it doesn’t make any sense. But the SUD isn’t exactly a business. So sometimes if we can afford to, we need to do things that are in the public benefit as long as they don’t bankrupt the utility.”

Jumpoff road is a useful corollary to Dancing Fern Road and Keith Springs — all three share similar financial, geographical, and geological challenges. But while Jumpoff road is only a few miles removed from Sewanee, Keith Springs and Dancing Fern Road are both over 20 miles removed.


“We will never get water to this neighborhood during your lifetime” — this is, according to Dancing Fern Road resident Jan Upton, what Tennessee American Water company representatives told her during a meeting she arranged with them and the mayor of Jasper. Dancing Fern Road is located on the cusp of the boundary to where Tennessee American Water company, the company who Chattanooga contracts for their water infrastructure, should be supplying water.

Upton, determined to obtain water, hired a well digger who built a well over 600 feet deep, at a $9,000 price tag. Upton was dismayed to find the well provided “black, thick, sulfur-smelling water” to her home. She called the well digger she hired; he threatened to sue her; she let it go. She voiced her concerns unflinchingly in community-wide forums, and finally got water. Yet, before long, Upton was told her pipes had a leak and that it was her responsibility to fix it. She watched, frustratedly, as a new wealthy community developed across the highway and obtained water easily with their plentiful financial means.

And finally, Upton simply gave up.

“She is now three months without water. She’s been forced to pump water from a local spring on her father’s land a half mile away. It’s the best situation she has had since moving there, but as local spring water, it’s not very safe,” explained Tucker. Ben Beavers echoed the safety risk of local spring water; he stated in his interview that local springs around the Cumberland Plateau have been documented as fecal or E. coli positive, and often full of iron due to surface influence.

Upton’s story, Tucker stresses, is not an outlier, but an exemplar of the challenges residents in Dancing Fern Road and Keith Springs face: a series of challenges so overwhelming that it is seemingly impossible not to give up.

“We individually interviewed about ten people in Keith Springs,” stated Tucker, “and when we asked them if they had city water, literally every one laughed. Every one.”

These are just some of many stories of those who do not have access to clean, or any, tap water; the stories of those who, when they attempt to overcome their intimidating series of challenges, were left with no option but to give up and to lose all hope.

“These are underserved communities who already face innumerable challenges. Marion and Franklin County, where Dancing Fern Road and Keith Springs are respectively located, are adjacent to Grundy County, the poorest county in Tennessee,” remarked Tucker. Only 11 percent of Grundy County’s denizens go on to obtain a Bachelor’s degree or higher. “The last thing that these communities should have to devote energy, time, and resources to is obtaining safe water for themselves and their families.”


For the residents of these communities, and for all of us, these challenges seem altogether unsurpassable. But Tucker is hopeful that, through devoting her own time and energy to sharing the stories of these communities, she can help to serve people and families who deserve, like any without clean water, one of their most basic human needs to be met.



“U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts: Grundy County, Tennessee.” Census Bureau QuickFacts, United States Census Bureau, www.census.gov/quickfacts/grundycountytennessee.

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