CE Corps Helps Small, Underserved Towns

Our colleagues at the American Water Works Association (AWWA) originally published this article in their e-newsletter AWWA Connections on June 26, 2015.

In rural Port Royal, Va., population 155, engineers volunteer their time to figure out ways to shore up the town’s dilapidated water distribution system and leaky storage tank.  On the opposite coast, in towns dotting California’s Salinas Valley, engineers design plans to connect communities that use wells or septic tanks to adjacent counties capable of expanding their centralized water and sewer systems.  In northern Arizona, they work on a Navajo reservation to improve the water supply so that residents don’t have to drive up to three hours on rugged roads every week to buy water, load it into their pickup trucks, then drive home and transfer it into storage tanks.

Everybody has heard of Doctors Without Borders and lawyers who do pro bono work – but volunteer engineers?

In February 2014, the Community Engineering Corps (CE Corps) was created to help communities throughout the United States that are too poor or small to hire help. It is a partnership of the American Water Works Association, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) and Engineers Without Borders—USA (EWB-USA).

EWB-USA began three decades after Doctors Without Borders

EWB-USA actually began in 2002, three decades after the well-known physician group, to provide technical assistance to poor villages throughout the world on projects ranging from construction of a health clinic in Peru to the implementation of household biosand filters in Cameroon. Along the way, engineers expanded their charitable work to this country.

“There is a desire to give back,” said Lindsey Geiger, project engineer with AWWA. “I hear that from our members all the time. They ‘grew up’ – professionally – with AWWA resources and are now looking for opportunities to contribute in a meaningful way.”

In the CE Corps’ first year, 25 communities submitted applications for assistance. A team of engineers reviews each application to determine the nature of the project and whether the community truly can’t afford engineering services. So far, 20 of the project applications have been approved and are in various stages of development.

Though the projects are “important and meaningful” to the communities, they are typically small in scope, said Peter Waugh, domestic program director at EWB-USA.  “Larger communities, larger projects, generally have more financial resources,” Waugh said. “Also, smaller projects are more manageable and can be done reasonably by a group of volunteers. Within our alliance organizations – AWWA, ASCE and EWB – we have all the expertise you would ever want for any civil engineering project anywhere on the globe. But volunteers can only do so much.”

Engineers Needed

About 250 engineers have already donated countless hours, but more volunteers are needed. The projects require civil engineers, but mechanical, IT, electrical and chemical engineers also assist, in addition to scientists and operators.

“Doing pro bono work is perhaps not quite as firmly established in engineering as it could be,” Waugh said. “Part of the reason may be that the opportunity to use our engineering skills to help others has often meant traveling around the globe. Now, with the CE Corps, engineers can use their skills to help others right around the corner.”  Because the CE Corps is so new, needy communities often hear about it the old fashioned way — word of mouth.

Bill Wick, the town manager of Port Royal, learned about the Corps in a spring 2014 phone call from Alan Roberson, a civil engineer and AWWA director of federal relations. “We understand you have a water problem and we’d like to help you,” Roberson said.  Last year, the Virginia Department of Health condemned Port Royal’s rusty, half-century old water tower. The tank that sits atop is almost as old. “We’re desperately trying to figure out how to fix or replace our water tower,” Wick said. “We have to put extra chlorine in the tank to make sure the water is safe.”

Port Royal Can’t Afford to Hire Engineers

The possibility of hiring engineers never occurred to anybody in Port Royal, said Wick, where 40 percent of the residents are low income. The town operates on a $65,000 annual budget that barely pays the salaries of its four part-time employees, let alone engineers on capital improvement projects.

Roberson and his CE Corps crew of about five engineers are beginning to advise town leaders through the process, including the eventual upgrade of the entire distribution system and replacing cast iron pipes running down some streets.  “First, you have to write an RFP (request for proposal) for a consultant to design what we are going to build,” Roberson said. “Eventually, they will have to replace all of their water pipes. They haven’t put much money in the water system since it was built except for patches.”

In the second phase, the engineers will help town leaders hire a consultant to draw up plans and specifications, place an advertisement for a contractor and oversee the construction. The team will also give advice on applying for grants and state revolving funds to finance the project. It could take three to five years before the project is complete.

Engineers in Arizona are looking at a similar timeline as they guide residents on the Navajo reservation in upgrading their water delivery system. Dr. Malcolm Siegel co-leads a CE Corps team with engineers Jennifer Thomas and Nicholas Riedel. So far, the trio has given advice on raising funds to buy project materials and tested the well water, which is unregulated and sometimes contaminated with uranium.

Most of the residents who benefit from the project want to stay on the reservation, regardless of the quality of the drinking water.  ”Some people would look at the situation and say, ‘It’s hopeless. They should just move out,’” said Siegel, an environmental scientist. “But most of the people here are elderly and don’t want to leave. Some say their umbilical cord is buried where they live.”

In describing his dedication to the project, Siegel noted that this country goes to great lengths to save endangered species. Our poor and underserved deserve no less, he said.  “What we’re doing enables these people to finish out their lives here instead of an institution,” Siegel said. “We’re helping them preserve their dignity and way of life.”

Want to Know More or Propose a Project?

For more information about CE Corps, to volunteer to work with communities, or to identify a community that could use CE Corps assistance, please contact Lindsey Geiger, AWWA project engineer. She can be reached at 303-347-6209 or by email at lgeiger@awwa.org.

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