Inside the Effort to Help Lowndes County’s Water Issues

On this remote Alabama highway nearly 60 years ago, thousands of activists marched from Selma to Montgomery to demand that the state stop blocking Black Americans’ right to vote. The clash that followed—peaceful protesters confronted by uniformed police wielding clubs and tear gas—helped catalyze federal voting rights legislation.

Lowndes County’s families hosted the marchers, and many of them joined the cause. Annye Burke lives right off the highway and remembers how her family helped activists through those turbulent years. “When they came through,” says Burke, 55, “we just participated.”

A different issue in civil rights threatens Lowndes County residents today. It exposes how inequality persists in the U.S. government’s protection of the environment it citizens depend upon. Access to sanitation is not available for more than 40% of the majority-black residents. These dire circumstances are causing health issues such as hookworm. This disease was thought to be extinct in the U.S. While the clubs may have vanished, the social and political issues rooted centuries ago in systemic oppression continue to rise.

Burke lives next to her daughter Mautreé Burke-Clarke, and when I visited that home a few weeks ago along with government officials from Washington, Burke’s grandson Malachi, 4, was running around outside, paying little attention to the history lesson. He was curious to learn about the fate of the turtles, who like to swim in the backyard’s puddle. He refused to listen and his grandmother gave him a warning: don’t get into that water.

What she didn’t tell him was that the puddle is a noxious mixture of precipitation and sewage that had leaked out of their faulty septic tank. The ground was bare and they tried to cover it with a gray cloth, but the green broth overpowered that solution. They were left to deal with all the dangers that come with living with human waste that is within feet of their homes.

Lowndes County resident has a straight-pipe sewage solution.

Charity Rachelle at TIME

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Lowndes County is a symbol of sanitation issues that plague an inordinate number of Americans. It has been reported that there are 2 million Americans without access to water. Although no thorough survey was done, a U.S. Water Alliance 2019 report found that Black Americans have nearly twice the chance of not having access to proper plumbing and sanitation systems.

Lowndes might be seeing a change. The politicians who visited Burke-Clarke’s house in early August—including Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Michael Regan—weren’t on a fact-finding mission or there to spread awareness. Instead they brought money with a plan to Lowndes. Their goal, they said, was to rid the region—and others like it across the country—of this fetid problem not just by throwing money at the state, but also by providing dedicated expertise and a vigilant attitude that would see the transformation through to the end. “We have an historic opportunity,” Regan told a crowd in Lowndes on Aug. 2. “EPA has $50 billion—billion with a ‘b’—to focus on wastewater issues in this country. It’s high time that communities like Lowndes County get their fair share.”

It is not easy to make a difference in Lowndes, even if you have the money. The nation’s thorniest environmental justice problems are deeply intertwined with the same resilient system of oppression that kept Black Americans first enslaved and later away from the ballot box and at separate lunch counters. People of color, especially those who are poor, rarely have much influence in the political process. And, even when they do get the attention of national officials, federal authorities depend on the work of state and local authorities to distribute money—a difficult proposition given the local resistance to racial justice measures in many state capitols and the lingering endemic poverty in many majority-Black municipalities. The Administration’s new initiative seems to recognize that providing meaningful help for the nation’s sanitation crisis requires digging down to the roots of the problem and acknowledging that the federal government will not succeed by writing a check and looking away.

The residents of Lowndes are positive and cautious, but they also have to remember that government money is being spent on problems that have been burdened by decades of institutionalized racism and neglect. “Black and white is still a factor,” Mary McDonald, a long time Lowndes resident, told me on her front porch. “Always has been. Always will be.”

One resident shared photos showing the rising sewage in their backyard after heavy rains.

Charity Rachelle at TIME

An insidious problem

The sanitation problem in this part of Alabama is so insidious that it’s easy to imagine a visitor coming away with a myopic sense that the county has overcome its history of oppression. Just off Highway 62, the Lowndes Interpretive Center celebrates Lowndes’ role in the dismantling of Jim Crow laws. The Civil Rights Movement’s victories are celebrated in a small museum located near the Edmund Pettus Bridge. And while the Confederate flag can be a common sight elsewhere in the state, I didn’t spot a single one in Lowndes.

The persistent problem can be seen if you look behind the house or take a walk down side streets. There’s the cesspool behind Burke-Clarke’s home. Just a few feet from the Pine Street houses is an exposed lagoon, where you can find sewage drains. It’s covered with a layer of green slime. Between a group of mobile homes, there are puddles filled with waste. Through inches of sewage, only a handful of slabs of concrete lead to the trailer doorway.

Residents can face prosecution for lacking adequate sanitation—local authorities in effect penalizing their poverty. Residents may not want to discuss their problems with strangers because of this. I was often told by those who had spoken with me that the repairman would be coming shortly. Research shows that the problem is widespread and will require multiple requests for repairmen. Gladys Grant is a Longtime Lowndes resident and helped to conduct an extensive survey about sewage in the county. I wanted to know her thoughts on this issue. After a long sigh, she laughed and then sounded more serious. “Don’t nobody have septic tanks,” she said. “Mostly, everybody straight pipes.”

That’s the lingo for homes that have a PVC pipe that extends straight from the house into the backyard, creating a pungent puddle of sewage a few feet away. Some homes have septic systems that allow household waste to drain from their house into a large underground tank, which is regularly emptied and cleaned by professionals. Although septic systems are better than pipes in theory, many Burke-Clarke residents have poor systems that do not suit the soil or climate of their area. These broken septic systems create giant puddles of their own, and when it rains, the waste backs up into residents’ sinks and showers.

Gladys Grant, standing before her Lowndes County house on August. Grant assisted in a survey to assess the sanitation situation within the neighborhood.

Charity Rachelle at TIME

Local universities released a 2017 report that found 35% had a failing septic and 15% had straight pipes. Nearby Wilcox County saw 60% of straight-piped homes. Lowndes also conducted a separate study that found 42% had raw sewage.

Catherine Flowers established the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice in Lowndes to tackle a variety of social justice issues. However, her over two decades of experience with rural sanitation problems shows that there is no easy solution. “We were never going to get to a solution until we first acknowledged that there was a problem,” she says.

Lowndes became the symbol for the nation’s problem because of her persistence. She brought prominent figures to visit the county, from Bernie Sanders to Jane Fonda to a United Nations official who called the site “shocking.” I first wrote about Lowndes in TIME more than two years ago in a story about the country’s water issues. Early on, Flowers persuaded the Alabama congressional delegation to lead a push for federal appropriations in the 2002 federal budget that would be disbursed via the EPA to address the county’s sanitation issue. She waited patiently for the funds to arrive, but she discovered private benefactors that would provide sanitation systems for some of her most need families.

Catherine Flowers (Activist) in Montgomery, Ala.

Charity Rachelle at TIME

However, these efforts did not solve the problem. The private funding was limited in scale, and the federal dollars took eight years to disburse—even then the federal government only released it to fund research. After a number of administrative mishaps at local levels, the U.S. Department of Agriculture funding provided by the U.S. to help with the sanitation issue was returned last year. The local government has limited resources and lacks the matching funds and institutional capacity to access federal money. Many residents that I talked to wondered if the state government run by Republican conservatives, who are not open to federal intervention, wanted to assist.

A lasting approach to Lowndes’ change would have to address these issues, and then offer a solution. “We have to change the process,” says Flowers. “We have to change the paradigm.”

Catherine Flowers walks alongside Lowndes County residents who struggle with sewage issues.

Charity Rachelle at TIME

‘Help is on the way’

Three senior officials from the Biden Administration traveled to Lowndes in order to announce their new assistance. They sat a few feet away from a hole clogged with raw sewage and relayed the news.

The substance of the Aug. 2 announcement from the heads of the EPA and U.S. Department of Agriculture as well as Biden’s infrastructure czar was, at least on the surface, as unglamorous as the site. The officials presented a multi-part plan for Lowndes and 10 other similarly challenged areas across the U.S. First, the federal government would provide assistance studying the county’s wastewater issue, looking at both the technical issues and financial barriers to providing sanitation in the region. Next, the same experts would create a comprehensive plan to finance it. This includes funding through Congress’ $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure legislation. To ensure that officials do their jobs, the federal government would continue to engage with county and state officials.

Although the melange of plans, assessments and capacity building sounds too indefinite and bureaucratic to offer immediate relief, it may be effective for addressing residents’ needs. Regan claims that the federal government has forced the state and local governments to take this initiative. “We are creating a scenario where there are absolutely no excuses,” Regan says. “At the end of the day, if a state doesn’t want to cooperate, I don’t have to give the state the money.”

Flowers feels that the public announcement represents the largest transfer of resources she has seen in the two decades she spent working to address the lowland sanitation problem. She hopes that it can be used to help other communities deal with difficult sanitation problems. “This is a signal to other rural communities dealing with these kinds of issues,” she says. “Help is on the way.”

Sunset at Lowndes County, Aug.

Charity Rachelle at TIME

While the government’s push in Lowndes focuses on sanitation, it also hints at how authorities may be able to tackle a range of issues tied to systemic injustice, from the remediation of toxic industrial sites to the removal of lead pipes. The Administration has access to tens to billions in funding for environmental justice issues through the Inflation Reduction Act and the Infrastructure Law. And while activists argue those measures don’t go far enough, it presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to right some of these wrongs.

Lowndes was gone, and I thought back to my conversations with McDonalds. While we enjoyed sweet tea together on her porch, she shared her experiences living in the area over the past 60 years and how it has helped her to envision a better future. She talked about how even after the passage of the country’s landmark civil rights laws in the 1960s, local officials prioritized institutions serving white residents over Black ones. She talked about the town’s sewage system, which was installed after the end of the Jim Crow to modernize the community, but still in a decade when segregationist George Wallace served as the state’s governor. “If the structure is messed up,” she said, ”you got to go back to the structure and get it straight.”

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