Ice Water
Credit: courtesy CDC/ Debora Cartagena

A group of students and professors at UNC’s school of public health is breaking new ground when it comes to the study of race, water quality and health in the South.

By Stephanie Soucheray

Historically, nothing has been more important to the protection of public health than access to safe, potable drinking water. And while several Triangle researchers are attempting to maximize exposure to clean water in the developing world, some scientists at UNC-Chapel Hill are looking at disparities in accessibility to clean drinking water closer to home.

A professor of environmental science and students from The Water Institute are using census data, mapping technology and interviews to establish a definitive map of water-access sites in the state.

Water Drips
Image courtesy of Gaz Haywood, Flickr Creative Commons Credit: Gaz Haywood, Flickr Creative Commons

“This is the first study of its kind,” said Jackie MacDonald Gibson, a professor of environmental science and engineering at UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health and part of UNC’s Water Institute. “To my knowledge, no one has looked at each county in a state before to map water access and disparity.”

Gibson, who leads a team of graduate students on this project, first got interested in the idea after a conversation with former state health director Jeff Engel.

“We were working on a project and discussing water priorities,” she said. “We were looking at the issue of community water service, or piped water coming to homes from a community water supply.” These communities rely on private wells, which can suffer from a lack of maintenance and high septic-system failures.

Engel queried county health directors on how many North Carolina communities had water systems like this.

“Less than half of county health people could get that information,” Gibson said.

Gibson is using water samples and public records along with mapping tools to create a map of water access in the state, and is currently in the middle of her two-year project. She said the communities most at risk for poor water access are those like Rogers Road in Chapel Hill, the historically black community on the city’s borders.

“It’s not very urban or very rural communities where we see [disparity],” said Gibson. “It’s communities near towns and cities that could have clean water just across the street.”

map of Wake County African American census tracts lacking community water service.
Wake County African American census tracts lacking community water service. Map courtesy The Water Institute, UNC-Chapel Hill

Households that rely on these wells have septic systems with high failure rates (approximately 40 percent) and no sewers. Gibson said these communities are common throughout the South.

“It’s a legacy of Jim Crow,” she said. “These communities got left behind.”

For example, Gibson said preliminary results from Wake County show that black communities are significantly less likely than white communities to access municipal drinking water.

Julia Naman recently graduated from UNC with a master’s degree in public health and is working on the project. She conducted in-depth interviews with several people in unincorporated communities in the Piedmont, along the coast and in the mountains. She also interviewed other stakeholders, including mayors, county commissioners and utility providers.

“People talk about septic tanks overflowing and going into nearby creeks,” said Naman, who noted that children also play in yards where untreated water sits.

She said that many of the people she interviewed live only a mile or two outside the city limits but have no access to municipal police, fire department, garbage pickup or water and sewer access.

Hannah Leker, a current master’s student, works with GIS technology to create maps of these communities.

“We’re trying to figure out if race is a predictor, and what information we can get through the census,” she said. “It’s a very interesting environmental-justice issue.”

Last year, the Pender County community of Maple Hill, near Wilmington, made news when it successfully implemented a wastewater treatment system after years of failing to get the community incorporated. Instead, citizens used funds from the N.C. Rural Economic Development Center and the N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund.

Naman said there are small pockets of communities just like Maple Hill throughout the state.

“We have to find them,” she said.

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