‘All the water’s bad’: In McDowell County, you have to get creative to find safe drinking water

Cooper and his wife, Hazel, once depended on wells for water. More than 43 million Americans use wells, which can be a plentiful source of clean water. Today, however, the Coopers’ two wells are too polluted to drink from — the result, they suspect, of nearby natural gas extraction. The once-clear water, which they now only use to wash themselves and water their animals, is orange and sour-smelling. It leaves a thick sludge in their sinks, rust-colored stains on their taps and clothes, and an itchy, red rash on Burlyn’s skin.

An estimated 2 million Americans live without access to either safe drinking water, indoor plumbing or basic sanitation, according to DigDeep, a nonprofit that works to bring water to Americans without it. This “water access gap” disproportionately affects low-income, rural communities and people of color — communities left behind by the massive national investment in public water infrastructure in the past century.

Meanwhile, Americans of color and rural communities have fallen through the cracks, said McGraw, DigDeep’s founder. There is little federal data on the demographics of water and sanitation access, but recent research conducted by the nonprofit found that race is the strongest predictor of access, with Black and Latino families twice as likely as white families to lack running water. More than 17 percent of rural Americans report having experienced issues accessing safe drinking water. The challenges span the country, from McDowell to the Navajo Nation, from Texas border towns to the Alabama-Mississippi Black Belt.

NBC ‘All the water’s bad’: In McDowell County, you have to get creative to find safe drinking water