As the sun beams in through Ilean McGlarn’s only kitchen window, she gazes at the water flowing from the faucet, checking the quality of it like she always does. She wants to make sure the small, brown sand particles are not floating in the water today.
“You never know whether the water is going to have something in it,” McGlarn said. “Even though people say it’s safe, it’s not always treated.”
Typically, one does not have to worry about whether they will have clean water to drink, brush their teeth, wash their face or shower in the morning.
For years, McGlarn has been living in her brown brick house on County Road 318, waiting for someone to offer her those same privileges.
That time has still not come.
“I just don’t understand how, right around me, they can get water if they decide they want to get water, but then you cut it off when you get to my neighborhood,” she said.
McGlarn is one of more than 43 million Americans that struggle with access to clean, reliable water. According to the United States Geological Survey, 15% of Americans rely on a domestic well as their source of drinking water. According to Mississippi Private Well Populations, nearly 400,000 (12.8%) people in the state use well water, and about 7,000 (12.75%) people get their water from a private well source in Lafayette County.
According to the US Water Alliance, “Closing the water access gap in the United States is difficult because no one entity — whether a federal agency or research institution — collects comprehensive data on the scope of the problem. The lack of consistent data makes it difficult to track the challenge and develop solutions; after all, you can’t manage what you don’t measure.”
Pinpointing the Local Problem
County Road 318 is located approximately five miles from Oxford, one of the largest cities in the state.
The road, however, is in an unincorporated area of the county between Oxford and Taylor, meaning that McGlarn and the 13 other families who live there are not entitled to community water. Instead, they are forced to use privately owned wells.
Hayden Harden poses for a portrait as he waits for the school bus to arrive.
Using a well comes with the responsibility of purifying the water on your own. That process entails boiling water to bathe and using bleach to wash dishes. In addition, McGlarn chooses to buy bottled water to drink because she does not trust that the water is completely purified.
Water from domestic wells is not routinely tested, so individuals who rely on well water could be drinking water with elevated concentrations of contaminants, exposing them to gastrointestinal illnesses according to the United States Geological Survey.
This sounds like an old-fashioned way of living, but for McGlarn, it is her harsh reality. She has completed this same process for years, hoping that one day someone will hear her and offer her the resources that she desperately needs.
McGlarn has found it frustrating and difficult to navigate the multiple layers of local government. According to her, she has spoken with members of the Taylor Water Association three different times, each time receiving a response that failed to get her water.
“Why do we have to fight for our rights when you have the same rights that I got, that I should have?”
The first time that she spoke with officials, they told her they would “look into the issue and see what they could do.” The second time, they told her they did not have an easement to go across the land of the people who stayed on the road, therefore, they could not insert a pipe to provide water to the community of 14 families. The third time, they told her that they did not have a grant to fund the project, so she would need to go to Jackson and speak with officials there.
“I don’t think I should have to go to Jackson when we have representatives that are supposed to be the ones that do that,” McGlarn said.
Taylor Water Association did not respond to an email request for comment.
McGlarn has a Taylor zip code, but she lives several miles outside of the city limits of the town of Taylor. Her only local direct elected representatives are on the Board of Supervisors, which does not provide utilities.
The Taylor Water Association is also a non-profit, rural water association that operates independently of the town or county government.
Ellen Meacham, an alderman in Taylor, has assisted McGlarn in her effort to gain access to community water. McGlarn lives outside of the town limits, which constrains what Meacham can do for her.
Meacham said the water problem in the Taylor area and Lafayette County has arisen as the county has developed over the years. She does not believe the water system was designed to exclude certain populations, but she feels that no one has prioritized a solution to the problem.
“It is super confusing — and much more complicated than it ought to be — and this situation, regardless of intent, does have a deep and harmful impact on many people who just want access to clean, safe water, a very simple but powerful need,” she said.
Meacham also said she realizes that the problem for the families who do not have access to community water is frustrating and that she would love to see those families who want water be able to receive it.
“I’m glad that Brandon Presley’s office is taking the lead to see if they can work it out here and get a handle on the scope of the problem in North Mississippi,” she said.
Inefficient Infrastructure in Rural Communities
Northern District Commissioner Brandon Presley believes that the ruralness of a community, not just in McGlarn’s case but also in the cases of other rural communities in the state, plays a role in who is able to access community water.
“The unfortunate fact is that many of our most poverty-stricken areas in the state have been traditionally areas in which there has been a lack of investment for community water for a myriad of reasons,” Presley said.
According to the Public Service Commission, lack of funding for infrastructure is the main reason why access to water has not been provided for McGlarn and the other families.
Presley said that they are working on a funding mechanism for Taylor Water Association to serve those individuals on County Road 318 since it is the closest water provider to the road.
“That’s one complicating factor,” Presley said. “We’ve got large areas of the state where there is no incumbent water provider.”
The Commission is hoping to sponsor a community development block grant, which would be able to fund water to residents on County Road 318. If and when the families will receive water is “contingent upon a funding source,” according to Presley.
“Well, we’re looking at that from every angle right now,” he said. “Our focus is on (finding) the fastest path to get service to not only County Road 318, but to others throughout the state.”
In “Closing the Water Access Gap in the United States,” the US Water Alliance found that rural communities, like the one that McGlarn lives in today, “did not receive adequate water and wastewater infrastructure when the nation made historic investments in these systems in past decades.” That lack of investment created a problem that has yet to be solved.
Environmental health researcher Catherine Coleman Flowers believes that the “people in power” have overlooked underserved communities for far too long.
“The people sitting at the table have to include the people from the community,” Flowers said. “Resources addressing access to water should be allocated to address legacy discrimination and neglect.”
Flowers said that the lack of access to water is “egregious” calling it, in many cases, a “relic of the Jim Crow era.”
According to the US Water Alliance, race is the strongest predictor of water and sanitation access. African American and Latinx households are twice as likely to lack complete plumbing than white households. In the Southern region, African American households are more likely to lack complete plumbing.
“While the majority of Americans take high-quality drinking water and sanitation access for granted, millions of the most vulnerable people in the country — low-income people in rural areas, people of color, tribal communities, immigrants — have fallen through the cracks.”
Poverty also contributes to a lack of water access. Households with higher income and educational attainment are more likely to have complete plumbing.
“The racial paradigms in this country have created impoverished situations in the Black community and other communities of color,” Flowers said. “It is reinforced by an economic system that still thinks the labor of black and poor people should be free. It is supported often by water inequality, sanitation inequality, housing inequality, economic inequality and so on.”
Maintaining a Well in the Rural South
Harsh weather across the South last winter made matters worse for McGlarn and others who were already without a consistent clean water source.
In February, Mississippi experienced a week-long snowstorm. The effects of water-runoff from snow-melt or rainfall can contaminate wells by washing microorganisms into the well system or seeping into the ground, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency.
A snowstorm is not the only problem that McGlarn faced. According to the Weather Channel, Mississippi experiences about 43 tornadoes a year, and the state also sees a frequent occurrence of thunderstorms. This weather can produce lightning and the possibility of lightning striking the well.
In an effort to maintain her well as long as possible, McGlarn now keeps it covered with an old, wooden door because in addition to purifying her own water, she also has to fund her well. If anything happens to the well — it freezes, lightning strikes it or it runs dry — she is responsible for it.
Although McGlarn does not have to pay for water, funding the well can be expensive. In her case, it costs her up to $3,000 to have a well dug. In addition to that, maintaining the well can range anywhere from $200 to $3,000.
“It might be easy for some people to pay,” she said. “It ain’t easy for me to come out of my pocket with $3,000 to get a well.”
In Resolution 64/292, the United Nations declared “the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights.”
“I just want people to treat me the same way that they are treated.”
As a law-abiding citizen, McGlarn believes that right should be expanded to her too.
“I don’t understand why we can’t be offered the same thing everybody else is offered when I have to pay taxes, just like everybody else,” she said.
The sun begins to set on another day more than 30 years after McGlarn has moved into her house on County Road 318. The years have passed, but somehow, McGlarn is still waiting to be offered the privileges afforded to modern-day society. She sees the lack of access to not only water, but also to the internet, cable and gas as “punishment for wanting to live outside the city limits.”
“I love where I live, and I don’t want to go anywhere else,” McGlarn said. “I don’t want someone to tell me I have to move. I’m getting older, and I want to be able to have things too.”