Most people in the U.S. do not give a second thought to the source of their drinking water unless something goes wrong—a tap runs dry or the discharged water is cloudy. Usually, the solution is fairly simple: Call the plumber or city water department and it is fixed.
But what if the solution was much more difficult, taking years instead of hours or a few days? This is a circumstance facing an increasing number of U.S. communities as the country grapples with a growing drinking water infrastructure crisis.
Official estimates from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) put the shortfall in funding for drinking water infrastructure at $384 billion over the next 20 years. EPA’s needs survey placed the shortfall in drinking water infrastructure funding for small systems (those serving 3,300 or fewer persons) at $64.5 billion.
Of the 52,000 community water systems in the U.S., more than 50% serve populations of fewer than 500 people. The cost to finance the construction and maintenance of traditional water systems often is prohibitive for these small, rural communities and the struggle to find viable options continues to plague state and local governments.
A Workable Solution
The unincorporated community of Queensland, Ga., is located in north central Ben Hill County, about 9 miles beyond the termination of the city of Fitzgerald’s municipal water system. The population of Queensland is about 100, and the majority of residents are aging minorities with low to moderate incomes.
Historically, the Queensland Community Water Assn. had provided water services to this community using a well and a patched-together plumbing system. About 40 years ago, the association abandoned that system and closed the well, replacing it with a new well and another patched-together plumbing system.
The new system consisted of every imaginable type and size of PVC pipe buried at depths ranging from 1 to 10 ft, with no map of the line and the only cutoff valve and water meter located at the main well. Before long, the system was being repaired more than it was in service.
In desperation, the association asked the Ben Hill County Commission for help, and it agreed. The county soon discovered the system was seriously flawed, but could not determine how to fix it and return it to the association to manage. While pondering the situation, the county found itself having to apply for a public water system permit and becoming the de facto owner of the problem.
For the next several decades, Queensland residents received free water, with the county searching for and repairing leaking pipe on an almost monthly basis. Because the line was not mapped, properly marked or buried at a standard depth, it had to be found the hard way—by digging with a backhoe until a section was ripped out of the ground. Then the section had to be dug out of the mud by hand and replaced. Complicating this was the single shutoff valve at the main well, requiring the entire system to be shut down while the digging and repairs were in progress.
In 2010, the county applied for and was awarded a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) to rebuild the system. The plans then were modified to include a firewater component, which included a 6-in. main, fire hydrants and a high-capacity well and pump system. These upgrades dramatically increased the cost to more than double the approved CDBG budget.
By mid-2012, it was clear there were not enough CDBG and county funds to fix the problem. Fitzgerald Utilities was not willing to extend its water line 9 miles into rural Ben Hill County to serve such a small population. The county commission explored the possibility of creating a special tax district to raise funds for replacing and operating the Queensland water system, but concluded this was not financially or politically feasible.
A Workable Partner
The Ben Hill County staff then turned to the Water Well Trust, a 501(c)3 organization created by the Water Systems Council to provide clean water supplies to U.S. families in need via private water wells. The Water Well Trust had just completed its first Georgia project in rural Jones County, where it drilled private water wells to serve an unincorporated community at a cost of $68,400—a savings of 88% compared to the cost of a traditional piped system.
For the Ben Hill County project, the Water Well Trust provided financing for drilling eight new wells to serve 12 owner-occupied homes. It raised significant donations for the project from Water Systems Council members and was awarded a $10,000 grant from the National Ground Water Research and Educational Foundation. The county covered the cost to drill wells for two area churches and five rental homes owned by the churches that are located in the same area.
In mid-2014, the Water Well Trust contracted for drilling eight deep wells for Queensland homeowner-occupants at a total cost of $6,400 per unit. Those whose household income qualified under U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) guidelines received partial grants of up to 75%. Those whose household incomes exceeded the HUD thresholds are required to repay the entire amount. The terms of the notes were 20-year, zero-interest, unsecured loans.
The total cost of the Ben Hill County project was $81,200, with $51,200 supplied by the Water Well Trust and $30,000 by the county, versus an estimated $600,000 for the installation of a centralized system.
Addressing the Continuing Need
In 2015, the Water Systems Council and other water well industry leaders supported the bipartisan introduction in Congress of the Water Systems Cost Savings Act (H.R. 3533/S.1642).
The act aims to reduce the cost to federal, state and local governments of providing quality drinking water to millions of Americans living in rural or isolated communities. It proposes to do so by promoting cost-effective community well water systems. The bill would require federal agencies to consider water wells in any and all applications by small communities requesting federal assistance.