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Program provides safe water and septic to Virginians, but now it's out of funding

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Mallory Noe-Payne
/
RadioIQ
Sherry Angell walking on her family's property past the spring-fed system that has provided water to her house for more than 60 years.

More than a million Virginia families have septic systems at home. State officials estimate about half those systems are so old they pose health risks. The same goes for thousands of drinking water systems. Now, a new grant program to help families get safe water and septic has been so popular it’s already running out of money.

Sherry Angell has lived in the same house her whole life. Her father built it in the 1950’s. For that entire time the house’s water has come from a spring on the property.

Walking on the land out back of the property, she points out the box that her father and others built themselves. She lifts the lid and water drips down into the dark.

“That’s the water that’s feeding my house,” Angell says as she slowly lowers the top.

Angell has lived alone in the house in Franklin County, south of Roanoke, since her parents died. And she doesn’t know how to take care of the system like her dad used to. She remembers him patching holes, and even fishing out crawdads.

Earlier this year a friend even pulled a dead lizard out of the pipes of her water system.

“I mean, this is just natural,” she says with a big of a shrug.

Angell has cancer and her doctors told her years ago her drinking water wasn’t safe. So she started buying bottled water, but still used the spring for showers and cooking. That was, until last year, when the system stopped working. For several weeks she had to tote water from town.

“A lot of times it was just sponge shower, sponge bath,” she explains.

So she started to find alternatives. She got quotes for a well, but they were upwards of $10,000 dollars. That's a steep price tag for Angell, who lives on the fixed income of her disability checks.

As she was figuring out her options a neighbor pointed her to the local health department. They helped her fill out an application, and gave her some good news. She qualified for the well to be fully paid for.

“It's a blessing,” Angell says. “And I feel that it's God's hand working in it.”

Angell got the help through a new state program called SWAP, the Septic and Well Assistance Program. It helps qualifying families replace old systems with something new, and most importantly, up to health code standards.

It’s important for human health because old systems can get infected with bacteria, or just stop working all together.

“When a septic system is failing that means it’s backing up into homes or raw sewage out onto someone’s property,” explains Nicole Sandberg, who runs SWAP.

Sandberg joined the Virginia Department of Health to run the new program back in February. They were just ramping up plans to spend $11.5 million in funding the department had received as part of federal COVID-19 relief funds. Sandberg drew up a multi-year plan to solicit applications through individual families and local partners, and get the money spent by the legislative deadline of 2026.

But things didn’t quite go according to that plan.

“I was still staffing up in June,” recalls Sandberg. “And then less than a month later we were going to a soft pause.”

They had gotten so many applications so soon that they had to temporarily stop accepting them so they could catch up and take stock of the budget. A month and a half later they stopped accepting applications altogether. Sandberg says the response has been “incredible.”

By early October they had already finished almost 40 well and septic projects, with another 73 under construction and a line of almost 140 more behind that. While they still have some funds left for local partner organizations, organizers estimate all the money will be spent 2.5 years ahead of schedule – helping over 600 people.

“We collect stories that are pretty heart wrenching,” Sandberg says. “They have no water, or their living conditions with sewage... that’s not something you would think would happen in Virginia in 2022.”

Sandberg says her goal is to make sure every citizen of Virginia has access to clean and reliable drinking water and waste management. But with the millions available to them already doled out in less than a year, the resources just aren’t there.

“We want to be able to help more families, unfortunately the funding we have right now, we can’t,” she says.

Back in Boones Mill, Sherry Angell is still waiting for her well. In the meantime she has good water pressure from a 300-gallon tank her friend helped her set up. But she’s grateful a more permanent fix is on the way.

“And I know it’s coming from the government, from taxpayers, but... you know... tax everybody what they need to be taxed, and help people,” Angell says when asked what message she has for those who fund the program. “That's what the world needs now. Is people helping people.”

Officials at the Department of Health would like to keep building on their success so far. Sandberg says the most helpful thing would be a permanent source of funding from the state. That would be up to state lawmakers to approve during the next General Assembly.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Mallory Noe-Payne is Radio IQ's Richmond reporter and bureau chief.