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Residents of Alabama city face water crisis like some other Black communities

Some mornings before she opens her eyes in the house she shares with her parents, husband and son, Carletta Davis thinks back to a sunny day when – in her memory – the city of Prichard, her hometown on Alabama’s Gulf Coast, was united in pride and hope.

It was just over three decades ago, and Davis, now 49, was a sophomore on the Vigor High School girls basketball team, making her way through a joyful crowd to a Greyhound bus to play for the state championship. The team was a powerhouse, its star one of the top players in the country. Cheering parents, community leaders and passersby thrust $10 bills at the girls, booming, “Make us proud! Buy yourself something good for lunch!” Others passed players bouquets of flowers, their jubilation palpable as the girls waved and smiled and the bus pulled away.

Then the alarm rings. Davis pulls herself out of bed and over to the bathroom sink. Sometimes she turns on the faucet and the water comes out in drops or with an acrid stench. Usually, she doesn’t turn on the faucet at all. Like everyone she knows in Prichard, Davis reaches for the bottle of clean water she buys at the store, shakes a little onto her toothbrush, pours some more into a glass and brushes her teeth.

In Prichard, a majority-Black city of about 19,000 mostly low-income residents, you can’t trust the water. It may come out murky. It may not come out at all. It may be leaking from the city’s decaying pipes into the ground to such a degree that what comes out of your faucet is just a trickle – but your water bill, when it comes, is a torrent.

In this once-thriving center of shipbuilding and paper trades that is now heavily in debt, it is not just trust in the water that is in short supply, it is trust in government. Water board authorities have been indicted in a corruption investigation. State government leaders, despite outcry from residents, have for years neglected to step in to help set things right.

“I tell people all the time, the people here in this city are the best people. I mean, hardworking – you know, just, just good people,” Davis said of her hometown about five miles west of Mobile.

Recalling that state championship morning, “It seemed like the whole community was out cheering that bus on as we pulled off,” she said. “And I just remember this feeling of pride and the feeling of belonging at that point in time in my life. And it grounded me. And so, to have this community mistreated the way that it has been, with disenfranchisement piled on neglect, piled on malfeasance, it is just heartbreaking.”

Last month, backed by legal and logistical support from the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) and the Southern Poverty Law Center, Davis and other citizens made sure their voices were heard. At an Oct. 11 hearing, Mobile County Circuit Judge Michael Youngpeter stripped the Prichard Water Works and Sewer Board of control of the city’s troubled system, placing an outside expert in charge. He also instructed all the parties involved to sit down with citizen groups and their attorneys and said he would incorporate the concerns of the community into his eventual order on how the outside expert is to proceed.

The ruling came after two days of testimony over allegations the water system that serves Prichard and neighboring Chickasaw was in default on a $55.7 million bond it borrowed in 2019. In his ruling, Youngpeter sided with Synovus Bank, which manages the bonds sold to investors and had sued after the water board dipped into a bond reserve fund to make payments it was required to pay from other coffers. In the suit, Synovus alleged that Prichard Water is “suffering from gross mismanagement, a lack of fiscal integrity, and endangering public safety by failing to maintain vital system infrastructure.”

The Prichard water authority has been in disarray for years. By early 2022, Nia Bradley, the former water board manager, had been charged by Mobile County prosecutors with theft of property in the first degree and aggravated theft by deception for racking up more than $3 million in purchases on board credit cards. Media reports describe purchases that included trips to New York and Chicago, items from Louis Vuitton and Victoria’s Secret, and even subscriptions to streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu. Since then, other Prichard water board employees have been arrested on similar charges. The Mobile County district attorney’s office says its investigation continues.

Feels like a win

Davis, on behalf of the environmental justice group she founded – We Matter Eight Mile Community Association – won court approval to testify at the hearing, telling the judge that the neglect and mismanagement of the water system has led to daily hardship for residents. The utility has raised rates 5% annually for the last four years, and has announced a massive new rate increase, to take effect this month, of 22%.

The agreement by the judge to hear testimony from Davis and other citizens of Prichard came after the SELC and the SPLC partnered with the community association to investigate the finances and distribution of funds in both Prichard Water and the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM). The association, the SELC and the SPLC also filed an emergency petition to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the Safe Drinking Water Act. The petition seeks federal aid for upgrades to Prichard’s drinking water system, participation in the process ordered by the judge to put a new entity in charge of the system, and enforcement and development of a long-term plan with Prichard authorities to alleviate ongoing drinking water contamination.

“No one is under the illusion that there aren’t long days ahead, but the community feels like this is a win,” said Crystal McElrath, senior supervising attorney with the SPLC’s Economic Justice Project. “The evidence in court made clear that the board was not competent to maintain its water utility and not concerned about customers experiencing poverty. And there is hope for the first time in a long while that the people of Prichard are finally being heard.”

Legacy of systemic racism

The water crisis in Prichard – a city that is 91% Black, according to the U.S. census – does not, of course, exist in isolation. While many of this city’s current problems with its water supply have a great deal to do with the mismanagement by its own water agency, those problems are underpinned by a history of systemic racism that has squeezed Black communities nationwide while directing investment in maintenance and repair to majority-white enclaves. Study after study has shown that in many places with large populations of Black and Brown people, safe, clean, affordable drinking water is in desperately short supply. The water crises in Jackson, Mississippi, and Flint, Michigan, that have surfaced in recent years are only the most infamous examples of the not-so-hidden racial inequalities that plague the distribution of water in the United States.

“The lack of clean, safe, affordable water is among the tools that systematically disenfranchise minorities and strip them of what economic stability they might otherwise have,” McElrath said. “These water crises are not happening in areas with white, affluent, well-connected communities. You’re seeing it in industrial and agricultural Black, rural communities. So, it is an economic justice issue. It’s a human rights issue that has quickly developed into a racial justice issue.”

In Prichard, the water system has been beset by leaks and at risk for contamination for decades. With many of its underground pipes more than 80 years old, the system is failing. In February, ADEM concluded in a review of Prichard’s water system that the “state of disrepair of Prichard’s water lines cannot be overstated.”

The review found that the system is losing more than 64% of its capacity each month to leakage from aging and decaying infrastructure. The leaks mean some residents, even those who live alone or use relatively little water, have gotten monthly water bills of more than $1,000.

The leaks also, according to the ADEM report, leave the system at serious risk of contamination.

“Prichard Water has identified a number of instances where residual chlorine levels were found to be significantly lower than 0.2 mg/L,” the report found. “Inadequate disinfection occurred at repeated and various locations in its distribution system.”

Despite the recognition of the infrastructure failings in Prichard, ADEM has done little to respond. In 2022, the water board asked ADEM for more than $300 million to repair pipes and make other improvements. The state agency awarded Prichard $400,000, about .13% of its original request.

The infrastructure problems have been exacerbated by a corruption investigation into the system. Wrote the SPLC and the SELC in the petition to the EPA, “The Board in charge of the system has negligently failed to maintain the system, fraudulently used Board funds, and shut the public out of the decision-making processes. Further, the Board is now threatening to shut down the water for approximately 200 residents where the greatest loss occurs. These residents would be forced out of their homes.”

‘Jeopardizing our future’

It wasn’t always this way in Prichard. Once the home of shipbuilding companies and of the behemoth Scott Paper Company, the city saw revenues begin spiraling downward in the 1960s and 1970s, when most of Prichard’s major employers shuttered or moved away.

Gabriel Dortch, 48, grew up in the city and says he has always hoped Prichard would rebound. Instead, he said, he has watched in dismay as a series of city administrations have mismanaged not only the water infrastructure, but general municipal finances.

Dortch says that even as the quality of the water service has slid, prices have climbed. He lives alone, but with water bills that can come in at hundreds of dollars each month, he says he takes extreme measures to keep his bills down. He takes his clothes to a laundromat rather than use his own washer and dryer. He doesn’t water his plants or wash his car. And he never drinks the water.

Like many Prichard residents, Dortch says the blame lies with local officials. An online petition he wrote calls on state legislators to introduce a bill that would place the water board under the oversight of the Alabama Public Service Commission.

“I have witnessed firsthand the health and economic crisis that our community is facing due to the lack of regulation of our water and sewer services,” Dortch wrote in the petition. “Our city’s infrastructure is crumbling, leading to frequent service disruptions, poor water quality, and high bills that many residents can’t afford. This situation is not only affecting our daily lives but also jeopardizing our future.”

Even though she sometimes dreams of the past in those moments before daybreak, Davis is looking toward the future as well. She does not deny that a key reason Prichard’s water system is in such a crisis is the malfeasance of its own water board. But she says the community has been desperate for an investigation of the problems for years.

That, she says, is about to change.

“We’re in for a long fight,” Davis said. “We’re not going to let this neglect of the issues in our community go on. We want local control over our water, and we’re hopeful that the federal government will come in with their resources and help right this problem.”

Davis has reason to keep fighting. Her son is 14 now. He is a student at her alma mater. He is a basketball player. And he gets thirsty.

Image at top: In Prichard, Alabama, leaks in the city's failing water system are causing some residents to receive exorbitant water bills. (Credit: Bill Oxford)