News | May 7, 2024

Water crisis in Prichard

Clean drinking water isn't guaranteed for Prichard natives Carletta Davis and her son. She's on a mission to change that. (Photos by Julie Dermanksy)
Carletta is an avid grower, a passion that’s been stunted by Prichard’s expensive and unreliable water service.

At some point most Americans have poured themselves a glass of water straight from the tap, but Carletta Davis can’t remember ever doing that at her home in Prichard, Alabama.

Imagine eggs boiling on the stove, but there’s no water in the pot. That’s how Davis describes the smell of her water to folks who haven’t been to Prichard.

“We’ve been buying our water for years,” says Davis. “It’s either you do that or you get sick.”

Prichard — called the City of Champions for its way of churning out successful professional athletes — is facing a water crisis. After years of neglect and mismanagement, the system no longer delivers water consistently or cleanly. This is not only unacceptable for daily life, but also puts emergency services like fire response at risk.

“Those responsible for protecting our right to clean, affordable water have epically failed us,” says Davis.

A community failed

Nearly 60 percent of Prichard’s drinking water leaks from the system, and the Alabama Department of Environmental Management describes the water service lines as “very poor” and in “dire shape.” Local and state testing confirms the presence of bacteria and chronic inadequate disinfection since 2021.

Access to clean water is a God-given right that should never be taken away.

Carletta Davis, community advocate

At the same time, mismanagement of a $55 million bond by the Prichard Water Works & Sewer Board is to blame for a devastating 22 percent rate hike for residents. Davis describes water bills ranging from $300 to $400 for basically just bathing.

Carletta Davis has been buying bottled water for as long as she can remember.

A former banker, she now leads a local environmental justice group called We Matter Eight Mile Community Association. And she picks up the phone when people call with questions about their water.

“I’m an environmentalist by force, not by choice,” she says. More than 90 percent of Prichard’s nearly 20,000 residents are Black and nearly 70 percent of residents earn a lower or fixed income. With a valid lack of trust, locals are in favor of restoring their water system. They worry about the loss of autonomy and the opportunity for further neglect if they have to tie-in to Mobile’s system, which is one proposed solution.

“Economic depravity causes a lot of the social issues you’re seeing,” says Davis. “Access to clean water is a God-given right that should never be taken away.”

Ryan Anderson, who works as an associate attorney in SELC’s Birmingham office, says she was “stunned” to hear Davis’ personal record of the water crisis unfolding in Prichard.

After hearing Davis’ story, SELC partnered with Southern Poverty Law Center to file an emergency petition to the Environmental Protection Agency under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

EPA has a responsibility to use its authority to keep people safe

Ryan Anderson, Associate Attorney

We are asking EPA to provide financial assistance for water system upgrades and commit to a long-term plan to address water contamination issues.

Clean water for all

Prichard isn’t the only place where people don’t have enough clean water to drink. Determined community leaders like Davis are the reason we make progress toward environmental justice.

“When utilities and state agencies aren’t doing their job, it’s the community groups and advocates who have to lead the charge,” says Anderson. “Carletta is such an inspiration. She is one of the most passionate advocates I’ve ever met.”

Clean water for all is possible. SELC is proud to support We Matter Eight Mile Community Association’s fight for justice in Prichard.

Everyone deserves access to clean water.