Community founded by descendants of slavery gaining access to running water for the first time

Since Bogue Chitto was founded in Alabama in the 1900s, residents obtained water for drinking, cooking and bathing from wells dug in their yards.

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Running water has never existed in the unincorporated Alabama community of Bogue Chitto, a Dallas County locality descendants of slavery founded in the early 1900s — but that’s about to change.

According to the Montgomery Advertiser, the West Dallas Water Authority has started extending the reach of its water treatment service to 69 residences and one church in Bogue Chitto, which is approximately 15 miles west of Selma, Alabama. It’s an expansion project made possible by funding from the Dallas County Commission and a $3.8 million commitment from the United States Department of Agriculture.

“For me, it has been a nightmare because the idea that in 2022 someone would not actually have safe water to consume, it was just more than I could wrap my mind around,” said Maggie Drake-Peterson, chair of the West Dallas County Water Authority, according to the Advertiser. “I thank God that we were able to make this happen.”

West Dallas Water Authority board of directors (from left) Rosa Honor, Maggie Drake-Peterson and Herbert Blackmon speak at a groundbreaking ceremony for the West Dallas Water Authority Bogue Chitto Water Expansion Project near Marion Junction, Alabama. (Photo: Mickey Welsh/The Montgomery Advertiser/ USA TODAY NETWORK)

Drake-Peterson grew up in a town about seven miles from Bogue Chitto. She said that while she was always aware of the challenges faced by the rural Black Belt — where hundreds of people live without common indoor plumbing — she didn’t learn until 12 years ago that access to a basic human need like clean water was one of them.

Residents of Bogue Chitto and its surrounding area had long obtained water for drinking, cooking, bathing and other uses from wells in their backyards, either deep or hand-dug.

Upon joining the board, Drake-Peterson and the other members decided to take action after hearing stories of locals becoming ill from consuming the well water. Most have completely stopped utilizing their wells over the past 10 years, opting to purchase bottled water by the gallon instead.

Testing revealed that the wells go dry in the summer but also that “the wells were contaminated,” Drake-Peterson said, the Advertiser reported. “You read about that stuff happening in Third World countries, but you don’t expect it to happen in the United States.”

She, along with other Dallas County officials, looked into several funding options before settling on the USDA’s Water and Waste Disposal Loan and Grant Program.

In a news release from the office of USDA Alabama Rural Development Director Nivory Gordon, the agency said having access to flowing water will also enable the county to put in new fire hydrants in outlying regions like Bogue Chitto. They estimate the additional fire hydrant capabilities will assist more than 20,000 rural Dallas County residents.

The expansion’s construction started on Nov. 7 and is anticipated to be finished by July 5. Drake-Peterson said she would continue to thank God for what’s to come — even as the people of Bogue Chitto continue to drink bottled water.

“There’s been a lot of problems over the years with people being taken advantage of by corporations and people saying they’re going to do one thing and doing something else,” Drake-Peterson noted, the Advertiser reported. Getting at least 90% of area residents to approve was crucial to obtaining the USDA assistance. “We had to, first of all, let them know who we are, you know? And show up time and time again to answer their questions and put their fears at rest.”

“We had to let them know that we’re there to help them,” she said, “not to try and hurt them or take advantage of them.”

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