LEXINGTON — Sixteen years ago, Carla Lebouf and her husband thought they were on their way to living an ideal country life when they purchased land east of Lexington and began building a home. That was before they realized the land lacked something essential: clean drinking water.
They spent thousands of dollars digging new wells, only to discover dry holes and bad water.
“Every time we would save up the money to do a well, and I used to literally sit out on the front porch and cry, because we might as well have just burned that money that we worked so hard to save up for,” said Lebouf, 43.
After eleven years of hoping for a new rural water system, they finally gave up and moved away. Now, dozens of her former neighbors on private wells are hoping that the state prison here could provide the long sought source of clean water.
The prison sits above an area of the water aquifer that is thought to be deeper and cleaner than nearby areas south of State Highway 39, where contaminants include salt and sulfur.
Tuesday, members of the Cleveland County Rural Water District No. 1 met with administration at the Lexington Assessment and Reception Center just north of the highway in hopes the prison would build a new well system and share the water with Lexington residents.
Daryl Covey, chairman of the Cleveland County Water District, said a well on the prison's grounds would tap into the Garber Wellington Aquifer and the water would be shared with nearby homes.
The system would cost just shy of $5 million to build, a little over half of which would be covered by a U.S. Agriculture Department loan. The rest would come from grants, and a small portion would come from the residents themselves. Many of those living in the area have already put down a $2,500 deposit to secure a tap on the new water system.
The system would provide water not only to the homes immediately south of the highway, but to the prison and the town of Lexington, as well.
Lexington is expanding, and the town's two wells are shallow and water can be scarce during droughts, prompting the town to buy water from nearby Purcell, City Manager Charles McCown said.
“I have a huge concern about the availability of water in the future,” he said. “Shallow ground wells continue to go dry.”
The plan also would require the state Corrections Department to buy just more than $5,000 worth of water each month. Both the Lexington center and the Joseph Harp Correctional Center next door have six wells that are operating properly, said prison Warden Jim Ferris.
Covey contends the prison's wells were drilled in the World War II era and $5,000 a month is a cheaper alternative to building a new well system, which he says will have to happen eventually.
Jerry Massie, spokesman for the state Corrections Department, said the wells do require routine maintenance, and not all of the water pulled from them is potable. Massie said there are no current plans to build a new well system.
Jeannie Salmon lives south of the highway in Lexington and also serves on the board for the Cleveland County Water District. Salmon bought her home in 1984 and has dealt with water issues ever since.
Salmon said that after drilling several unsuccessful wells, she is forced to use a water softener, a filtration system, and a chlorinator to keep the dirt and rust out of her water.
Getting a water system established requires engineering plans, approval from the Department of Environmental Quality and county commissioners, and often archaeological surveys.
Both Salmon and Covey agree the process of building a new water system can take several years. They worry that if the proposed plan with the prison falls through, those in need of water may never find resolution.
“If we can't make it happen, I don't know if anybody will pick it up and try to do it again,” Salmon said.