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Kentucky Overview of the State’s Small Water Systems

In Kentucky, budget and financial constraints are ongoing challenges for small systems. Many utilities have not increased rates in nearly 20 years, making it difficult, if not impossible, to obtain community approval for rate increases to cover desperately needed system upgrades and repairs. Moreover, many eastern Kentucky residents can no longer afford to pay their utility bills, resulting in significant increases in customer disconnect numbers or incidents of residents stealing water, exacerbating the economic challenges these communities face. In Martin County, 30% of residents live below the poverty line and over 46% are paying a share of household income for water exceeding USEPA guidelines. This issue is compounded by the amount of water loss experienced (e.g., Martin County experiences 70% water loss), adding to the economic challenges of the utilities and their customers.

Additionally, the current workforce is nearing retirement; but, it has become increasingly difficult for utilities to attract new employees because of poor salary and benefits packages. These challenges are further complicated by the ongoing regional opioid crisis that has significantly decreased the number of potentially qualified candidates.

An insufficient budget also inevitably leads to declining infrastructure and associated health impacts. According to Kentucky’s Annual Drinking Water Compliance Report, there were 503 violations in 2017. Approximately 22% of violations were attributed to monitoring and reporting issues with another 32% of violations attributed to exceedance of maximum disinfection byproduct (DPB) levels. Many systems with large water losses have extensive and recurring water main breaks leading to incursions of sediments, organics, and bacteria triggering customer taste, color, and odor complaints and result in a lack of trust in quality and safety of the water. University of Kentucky researchers have found concentrations of trihalomethanes and coliform bacteria violated drinking water standards in 25% of homes sampled in Martin County despite the required regulatory sampling indicating a compliant system. With university partnership and bi-directional engagement, these small communities will be better equipped to sustainably manage their systems and improve the quality of services offered to their customers.


Team Overview

Lindell Ormsbee, Ph.D, P.E., P.H., D.WRE, F.ASCE, F.EWRI

Lindell Ormsbee photo

Dr. Lindell Ormsbee is the Raymond-Blythe Professor of Civil Engineering at the University of Kentucky. He currently serves as the director of the Kentucky Water Resources Research Institute, the executive director of the Tracy Farmer Institute for Sustainability and the Environment, and the associate director of the University of Kentucky Superfund Research Center. Dr. Ormsbee’s past research efforts have focused on the application of systems analysis methods to complex problems in water resources and environmental systems with a focus on water distribution, stormwater management, watershed management, groundwater remediation, and stakeholder engagement.

Over a thirty-five-year career, Dr. Ormsbee has served as a PI or Co-PI on over $20 million in directly supervised research funding, and a collaborator on $40 million in additional research funding. During that time-period he has published over 300 publications on this research, which have resulted in over 4,000 citations. He is a recipient of numerous water related awards, including the 2016 ASCE Julian Hinds Award. From 1983 to 2000, Dr. Ormsbee partnered with Dr. Don Wood at the University of Kentucky in translating water distribution system research into commercial software (KYPIPE). During that same time-period, he taught over 150 workshops and short courses dealing with KYPIPE applications, ultimately training thousands of engineers and students. These efforts have led to the application of water distribution system research to hundreds of water distribution systems both in the US and around the world.

Scott Yost, Ph.D, P.E.

Scott Yost photo

Dr. Scott Yost received his Bachelors in Mathematics from Asbury College and went on to receive his Masters and Doctorate in Civil Engineering from the University of Michigan. He returned to Kentucky in 1995 when he started his professorship at the University of Kentucky. Dr. Yost is now the director of undergraduate studies and teaches environmental engineering and water resource engineering courses at the graduate and undergraduate level. His research focuses in hydraulic and hydrologic modeling including watersheds, surface-water environments, open channel flow, and estimation and optimization techniques.

Donna McNeil

Donna McNeil photo

Donna McNeil received her Bachelor’s degree in Civil Engineering from the University of Kentucky and went on to work for the State of Kentucky for 22 years as an Engineer in the Drinking Water Branch. After her time with the state, Mrs. McNeil became a compliance specialist for the Kentucky Rural Water Authority. From 2017 to 2019 she served as the Executive Director of the Kentucky Infrastructure Authority where she oversaw the allocation of loan and grant assistance to qualifying public works projects. She also oversaw the KY Water Resource Information System which supports water and wastewater utilities across the state of Kentucky. In 2020 Ms. McNeil joined the staff of the Kentucky Water Resources Research Center as a research associate.

Link to Colleges/Programs


UK Civil Engineering Department (

Workshops and Training Events

Many rural and small systems throughout the country face significant management and operational issues often include aging or inadequate infrastructure, recruiting and retaining qualified staff, growing or establishing financial reserves, and setting rates reflective of operational costs and capital needs. Designed to help small and rural utilities assess their strengths and challenges and create and action plan to address these areas, the USDA and USEPA developed a training program along with supplemental materials to assist small communities and assistance providers working with the small utilities improve operations. The Workshop in a Box (WIB): Sustainable Management of Rural and Small Systems is the first step of a three-step process ACTAT follows to assist small and rural systems address water infrastructure issues.


As the first step, this workshop helps utilities address a full range of challenges and move toward sustainable management of their operations and infrastructure.

  • How to deliver increasingly efficient, and higher quality services
  • How to improve long-term sustainability and increase resiliency
  • How to use the Small Systems Guidebook to Effective Utility Management , developed by the USDA and USEPA to make improvements at your system

Utilities learn how to make improvements in the ten key management areas, at a pace consistent with their most pressing challenges.

The workshops and Guidebook are built around ten key management areas. These ten areas of sustainable utility management help utility and community leaders assess utility health, discuss potential community impacts, and prioritize future activities based on what is best for the utility and the community.

Ten Areas of Sustainable Utility Management

  • Financial Viability
  • Operational Resiliency
  • Employee and Leadership Development
  • Water Resource Adequacy
  • Community Sustainability and Economic Development
  • Infrastructure Stability
  • Product Quality
  • Customer Satisfaction
  • Stakeholder Understanding and Support
  • Operational Optimization

Continuing education credits/hours are awarded upon completion of this one-day training event.

Upcoming Events in 2020:

To be announced.

Past Events:

Phase 1 (Step 1) Trainings

Regional Workshop-in-a-Box (WIB) training events hosted by KWRRI are workshops held where multiple utilities located a particular region of the state are invited to attend and participate in the training. Past events have been held in the following locations:

Phase 1 (Step 1) WIB Regional Trainings



Carter Caves










Phase 2 (Step 2) Team Trainings

Individual utility/community training events hosted by KWRRI cover the WIB material with all utility staff and local decision-makers for that specific utility, working together as a team.

  • Identify management areas that can be improved
  • Set goals
  • Develop an action plan

Trainings are catered to meet the specific needs of the individual utilities. Example training programs have offered ½ day WIB training and ½ day training of their choice (hydraulic modeling, water loss, etc.) Prior team trainings have been held in the following locations:

Phase 2 (Step 2) Team Trainings


Training Focus

Fountain Run

Sustainable Management of Rural and Small Water Systems

Water Distribution Modeling

Martin County

Sustainable Management of Rural and Small Water Systems

Water Distribution Modeling


Sustainable Management of Rural and Small Water Systems

Water Distribution Modeling

Bath County

Sustainable Management of Rural and Small Water Systems

West Liberty

Hydraulic Modeling

Sustainable Management of Rural and Small Water Systems

Estill County

Sustainable Management of Rural and Small Water Systems

Assistance to Small Systems

Phase 2 (Step 3) Technical Assistance

After a utility has completed a Team Training, KWRRI may offer technical assistance to the utility as needed and as practicable.

Success Stories

Martin County is located in Eastern Kentucky, along the West Virginia border. Since 2010, Martin County’s population has been on the decline. The decrease in people reflects a decrease in jobs as the coal industry has moved out of the region. This, coupled with 29.8% of families living below the poverty line, has led to a decrease in tax revenue that has required Martin County’s water infrastructure to forego required maintenance. Throughout the past few years, Martin County has become a common topic in the news due to the water issues plaguing the county.

With water loss rates well over 50%, infrastructure in need of repair, and a system that lacks redundancy, Martin County has historically been unable to provide safe and reliable water to the community. The region also sees some of the highest water rates as a percentage of household income at 41%. Martin County needs another revenue stream besides residential users to repair infrastructure and decrease operating costs. This has led to distrust of the water district in Martin County and has seen the rise of residents finding alternative methods for water supplies, decreasing revenue further.

Martin County has sought out alternative revenue streams in the form of a contract with Big Sandy United States Penitentiary, where they supply water for the federal rate. Due to their history of issues, Martin County and Prestonsburg, in the neighboring county, work together to supply water to the prison and surrounding areas. Because of the hydraulics of the situation, Martin County cannot control their contribution to the shared tank that feeds the prison and some surrounding Martin County customers. Because of this, the revenue stream has become a further source of debt for the community. Furthermore, to be able to overcome elevation gains and hydraulic losses to pump water to the shared tank, Martin County is pumping water in excess of 350 PSI through residential regions. This leads to common main breaks, high repair costs, and public safety risks (although pressure relief valves have been installed), and an unintended focus of manpower in this region of the county.

To attempt to improve these issues, KWRRI has developed a water distribution system model as well as update and verify infrastructure on GIS maps. In the Summer of 2019, fire flow and C factor tests were carried out to calibrate the Martin County model. We have also provided trainings to Martin County on how to use these resources and worked closely with the contract engineer and new water district manager to aid in the design process of solutions. Furthermore, the 2020 Civil Engineering Capstone class worked with Martin County to strategic plans for the incremental improvement of Martin County over the next 10 years.

How to Get Involved

Additional Resources

Kentucky Division of Water - Water Supply Branch (

Kentucky Division of Compliance Assistance (

Kentucky Infrastructure Authority (

Kentucky Rural Water Association (

Kentucky Association of Water and Wastewater Operators (


Kentucky Public Service Commission(

Kentucky Area Development Districts - provide water planning person and email [I will provide] (

Kentucky Rural Community Assistance Program (