PUBLIC WORKS/Virginia community takes to the trenches for water
The people of Smith Ridge, Va., needed water. Situated in Tazewell County, in the southwestern portion of the state, the coal mining community had never had a pipeline. For 100 years, its residents had relied on wells, springs and cisterns to meet their fresh water needs. Many of the 62 homes lacked indoor bathrooms or kitchen sinks.
“I’ve been waiting on water for 68 years,” Narcie Smith said in a 1998 interview with the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD). “My children had to carry water … in buckets. And I washed on a board.”
The community’s need for water was not a matter of convenience, however. Decades of mining had depleted the wells and springs, and the few wells that did have water also had high levels of iron and manganese, making the water unsuitable for drinking and too discolored for washing. Furthermore, extended dry weather made the cisterns essentially useless.
But in 1998, the tide turned when Smith Ridge tapped into Self-help Virginia, a state-sponsored venture that aids small communities in constructing their own water and sewer lines. Based on the Small Town Environment Program (STEP) developed by the Rensselaerville Institute, Rensselaerville, N.Y., the program makes public works just that – a matter of public work. “We use community development block grants, and we buy the material, and the people lay the pipe,” explains Jimmy Wallace, community planner for DHCD, which administers the program.
“We look for two main things: readiness and capacity,” he adds. “Readiness means that a community has a problem, and the problem is serious enough that they’ll go to extraordinary measures to solve that problem. Capacity means they can pull it off.” Smith Ridge had both. The community needed to install 7 miles of pipeline to provide a ready source of fresh water, and an inventory of manpower and skills showed that it had the resources to do the job. Mike Taylor – a local resident selected by the community for his ability to motivate his neighbors and coordinate all facets of the project – would oversee the job, assisted by another local, Henry Stiltner.
With a grant of $350,000, the community met DHCD project managers to make a shopping list that included, among other things, engineering specifications, equipment leases, pipe and fuel. The Rensselaerville Institute provided initial technical assistance, and the Tazewell County Public Service Authority (PSA) provided two equipment operators and a construction supervisor. PSA Director Jim Spencer assisted the community in purchasing its materials, and he expedited the necessary permits.
In April 1998, Smith Ridge broke ground on its water line, and Taylor’s coordination was put to the test. Six days a week, from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., teams of 17 volunteers – men and women – flagged traffic, dug the trench, shoveled gravel and laid pipe. When the crew stopped for the day, Taylor and others spent another three to four hours covering the trench, sweeping the street and maintaining the equipment.
On their worst day, the volunteers laid 131 feet of pipe; at their best, however, they installed 2,440 feet. “When they started, they were going to dig the ditch and then backfill because they didn’t think the layers could keep up,” Wallace says. “But they started digging, and, lo and behold, the people were keeping up with the trencher.”
At the project’s outset, DHCD estimated that a contractor would take six to nine months to install a 7-mile pipeline, costing the county $1,028,000. Smith Ridge did the job in fewer than three months, spending $250,000. Seventy-nine of the community’s 147 residents donated labor, putting in nearly 3,900 hours. In the end, they had installed 35,584 feet of 4-inch pipe; 1,111 feet of 6-inch pipe; and 16,895 feet of 3/4-inch service pipe. Today, every household has drinkable, running water.
Taylor has since moved from Smith Ridge but talks about the experience enthusiastically. The project is as notable for the generosity it engendered as it is for technical accomplishment, he says. While some residents labored, others cooked meals and delivered them to the crews; a local grocery store donated a portion of the fuel and provided the crews with one meal a week; and Wendy’s and Burger King, in nearby communities, also donated meals.
Even non-residents pitched in, Taylor says, adding that the project produced friends among neighbors. “When you get down in a ditch and work with somebody, and then you go in and have lunch and sit around and talk … it brought everybody close.”
Wallace is similarly impressed. “One of the benefits [of these types of projects] is the revitalization of the community from an emotional standpoint,” he says. “We have neighbors, but we don’t have neighbors. When you get in a ditch and start laying pipes, you know neighbors in a different light.”