Rural communities fight infrastructure issues as populations dwindle

(Source: KAIT)
(Source: KAIT)
(Source: KAIT)
(Source: KAIT)
(Source: KAIT)
(Source: KAIT)
(Source: KAIT)
(Source: KAIT)

CARAWAY, AR (KAIT) - In the last few years, rural communities in Region 8 have taken a beating.

They've lost schools, businesses and, of course, people.

Throughout the last two years, Region 8 News has followed the rise and fall of rural Arkansas, but now the problems aren't exactly visible. They hide deep underground.

Infrastructure is a big word for things we are accustomed to having like running water and sewers.

It is also something small towns are struggling to maintain.

Water and sewer systems are aging in rural communities.

In the small Clay County town of Datto, Mayor Jeremy Edington said they need a new sewer system.

"We are septic tank only," Edington said.

In Craighead County, Caraway Mayor Barry Riley said water pipes need to be replaced. "The water system has been here since 1947," Riley said.

These two communities are awash in water problems and want to avoid putting citizens or their cities in financial jeopardy.

"Trying our best not to raise rates," Riley said.

"We don't want to vote for something that we can't pay back," Edington added.

Datto is a community of 97 people.

"They [residents] have to do their laundry around the weather," Edington said.

Edington has applied for numerous grants and loans to get a sewage system installed but said the city had been rejected due to its small population.

"We don't have enough people in town to pay the loan back," Edington said.

It's becoming more of a problem for rural areas of Arkansas.

When people leave, so does the tax base, which means getting things fixed is even costlier.

Edington said if they could just get the funding they have a plan in place with a neighboring city.

"They have a treatment facility in Reyno, and they are willing to accept right now," Edington said.

But without a loan or grant, the cost will be put on the citizens of Datto.

"They are probably going to have to start replacing their systems," Edington said.

David Midgett is one of the homeowners who would have to do that if the city can't get the money.

"Day by day, they just don't work right," Midgett said.

Midgett, who's lived in Datto for more than 20 years, said drainage problems cause his septic tank to overflow every time it rains.

"Majority of it dumps in our little ditches around here," Midgett said.

Leaving a smell and inconvenience, he said it is dangerous.

"We need it bad on account of the health problems," Midgett said.

While he has no intention of leaving, that is not the case for everybody.

Caraway knows this reality first hand. Mayor Riley said they've lost nearly 1,000 residents in the last ten years.

"When you get fewer people that's having to pay the bills, there's no way to get around it," Riley said.

He wants to avoid raising rates, but the water system is being pushed to its limit.

"It's that old black pipe," Riley said. "Trees are starting to grow roots inside of them."

Roads can collapse if the lines aren't replaced, and like Datto, Caraway has looked to the government for help.

"Trying to match a million dollar grant per se, there's no way we can actually do that," Riley said.

That's because the funds just aren't there.

"You're looking at us topping out $30,000 to $40,000 a year," Riley said.

With no loans or grants available, Caraway's solution is to do the work themselves.

"Eight-hundred foot a year," Riley said. "Right now, we are taking our worst blocks and repairing those first."

Riley said it costs around $80 a foot for his crew to do the work. Most recently, crews replaced pipes under the main road in downtown Caraway.

Merett Emery, a Caraway business owner, notices the repair.

"To me, we aren't having any problems at all," Emery said.

But he said he knows that's because the city is working to make improvements with what they have.

"Because of the fact that we have less businesses, we generate less tax revenue," Emery said.

That's a big reason why Emery keeps the Caraway General Store open.

"The people in small towns need a place to go," Emery said.

Beyond a shrinking tax base, Riley said other factors work against them.

"It costs more and more every year to stay in compliance with EPA," Riley said.

Which makes it harder for rural communities, like Datto and Caraway, to take on the burden and the cost of upgrades themselves.

A lack of help forces leaders and residents in these communities to weigh a certain way of life with the cost.

"This little town is very peaceful and quiet," Midgett said.

"You can raise a family here," Emery said.

While Midgett said Datto residents are willing to save money where they can, for some it's a cost that goes beyond available means.

"Majority of the people who live here are on disability or social security," Midgett said.

That limits how far city leaders can push rates and forces them to beg lawmakers for help.

"We still choose to live in a small town," Riley said. "We'd like the rights the bigger towns get."

"I definitely think that our legislators need to look into small towns as far as supporting them and helping them with just basic things," Emery said.

Legislators have heard from these mayors looking for help and many understand it's an uphill battle.

State Rep. Joe Jett of Success, a Republican representing District 56, covers Clay County.

Over the phone, Jett told Region 8 News he understands the problems rural communities are facing because they face similar issues in the legislature.

Jett said he's a voice for small communities but competes with larger districts who have more legislators who want to focus support in larger cities.

While he continues to fight for the voices of those in Datto, he said there isn't an easy solution to get money.

State Sen. Blake Johnson of Corning, a Republican representing District 20, also covers parts of Clay County.

Johnson told Region 8 News he hopes to get Datto a block grant but said because money is limited it's a waiting game to get it.

State Rep. Dan Sullivan of Jonesboro, a Republican who represents District 53, once taught in Caraway and said the key to helping these rural communities is through economic development.

He said it goes along with Gov. Asa Hutchinson's vision to bring more jobs and industry to Arkansas.

Sullivan said he hopes with economic development more people will go to rural communities and invest.

State Sen. Dave Wallace, a Leachville Republican representing District 22, said there is no easy solution, but he feels if smaller towns can work together to share equipment and resources some issues can be alleviated.

Wallace told Region 8 News the General Improvement Fund only provides so much money to go around, but if communities, even counties, could work together it would be a step in the right direction.

But until anything can happen, residents like Midgett wait.

"Have our fingers crossed in hopes we can get the grant and do what we need to do," Midgett said.

Copyright 2017 KAIT. All rights reserved.

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