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The Town That Helped Itself—to Water

by Fred D. Baldwin

A bird's-eye view of Smith Ridge, Virginia, shows five dozen or so houses and four churches perched along seven miles of a winding ridge road that divides Tazewell and Buchanan Counties. The little community isn't even a dot on Virginia's official highway map, but it's very much on the map of self-help projects. Last spring, almost half its population banded together as volunteers to bring in public water and soon set high standards for speed, efficiency, and sheer enthusiasm.

For a hundred years or more the residents of Smith Ridge got their water from cisterns, springs, or wells. The cisterns, designed to catch rainwater and snowmelt from roofs, posed health problems and sometimes ran dry during summers. (Families would then have to buy a load of water hauled in by a fire truck.) Springs and wells on the ridge have been increasingly threatened by mining and drilling operations, which may pollute groundwater or drain it away altogether. Today the people of Smith Ridge can turn on a tap to get pure water piped in from a reservoir some 60 miles away. Other Virginia communities are taking notice of how they did it, and so are state officials, who estimate that the project's cost was 75 percent lower than a conventionally installed system.

Asking the Right Question

Last fall Mike and Pauline Taylor were among the Smith Ridge families who drew their water from wells that were functional but barely adequate. "People don't realize how it is," Mike Taylor says, "[when] if at night you take a bath, tomorrow you won't have enough water to cook with." The Taylors tried drilling a second well, but almost 200 feet down, they struck an old mine shaft—"just like hitting a cave."

Hearing that a nearby area was going to get public water, the Taylors and other Smith Ridge residents petitioned the Tazewell County Public Service Authority for similar help. The response: "We'll put you on the list."

The Smith Ridge folks feared that their pumps would be sucking air long before they moved to the top of that list. They knew they'd be competing for scarce funds with more populous communities, all clamoring for priority. Was it possible, the Taylors asked, that Smith Ridge residents could speed up the process by doing something themselves?

That turned out to be exactly the right question.

At the same time that the Smith Ridge people were wondering where to turn, the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) was considering how and where to launch a new initiative called Self-Help Virginia. It was to be based on the Small Towns Environment Program (STEP) developed by New York's Rensselaerville Institute.

The idea behind STEP is that small communities can lower the cost of water and wastewater projects by using volunteer labor—a "sweat equity" strategy for installing water and sewer lines. The institute has helped communities in 17 states undertake more than 300 STEP projects, working in partnership with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Ford Foundation, and the state governments.

The Virginia DHCD was prepared to commit Community Development Block Grant funds to Self-Help Virginia projects. Federal law limits eligibility for the funds to areas where a majority of households have low or moderate incomes. Smith Ridge easily qualified; about 85 percent of its households are within that range.

Jimmy Wallace, a community representative of the Virginia DHCD's Abingdon office, explains that the other rules for Self-Help Virginia are simple. Simple, but not easy. A community must recognize that it has a serious problem. It must muster enough volunteers with enough skills to complete the work with more donated hours than paid hours. The total cost of the project must be at least 40 percent below estimates for a conventional project. The community must identify at least one respected leader (called a "sparkplug") who will commit to coordinating and motivating workers until the whole job is done.

Jim Spencer, the Tazewell County Public Service Authority administrator, went to bat for Smith Ridge and convinced the Virginia DHCD that the community would make a good pilot site for Self-Help Virginia. The state's cost estimate for the water project, if it were contracted out in the usual way, was a million dollars and change—$1,028,412, to be exact. But based on what the Smith Ridge volunteers said they could do themselves, the Virginia DHCD budgeted only $350,000 for the project's completion.

A Long Way to Go

Today almost everyone involved will admit to having had a few twinges of concern as to whether the tiny community had taken on too much. Many of its residents are elderly or disabled. As for the engineering challenges, Mike Taylor offers a nicely understated summary:

"Some of this place is a long way between houses."

Well, yes. The road that the water line was to follow is about seven miles long. On a map, it resembles a fishhook dangling from a state highway, but forking at its end into two short prongs. The road's elevation varies by about 500 feet, and construction is complicated by switchbacks and narrow stretches with almost no shoulders.

TRI South, the Rensselaerville Institute's offices in Austin, Texas, provided technical assistance. Soon after project approval, Rob Hanna, director of TRI South, brought leaders of other STEP projects to Smith Ridge to offer advice and encouragement. He later described their private reaction:

"The flatlanders from Texas couldn't believe anybody could be laying pipe on these roads, much less for seven miles."

Early doubts evaporated like morning mist as the volunteers organized for work. Mike Taylor agreed to serve as the project's chief "sparkplug;" he was backed by Henry Stiltner. The Tazewell County Public Service Authority provided heavy equipment, including a trencher, a backhoe, and a tamping machine. It also provided two equipment operators and a construction supervisor, who together accounted for almost all of the 1,762 hours of paid labor ultimately spent on the project.

The workers broke ground on April 4. The salaried workers from the county operated the heavy equipment. As fast as the trencher could cut through dirt and rock, volunteers connected and laid down lengths of PVC pipe.

Some workers shoveled gravel into the trench to form a base. Two others held a 20-foot length of pipe while still others cleaned and dried one end before adding a soapy lubricant. That end would then slip smoothly into a coupling on the pipe previously laid. (The lubricant hardens into a tight seal.)

The work crews repeated this process for mile after mile, developing a rhythm as they gained experience. They inserted angular lengths of pipe where turns in the road made that necessary. Before filling the trench and tamping the dirt, they laid down metallic tracer tape so that the plastic line would be easy to find if future repairs should be needed. While a crew shoveled, laid pipe, and tamped, other volunteers were also busy; they flagged traffic and cooked and served hot meals.

Three days a week those meals were donated by an area grocery store and two fast-food restaurants. On other days, Smith Ridge volunteer cooks provided them. Pauline Taylor, who helped coordinate volunteers and kept the project records, produces a list showing who did what and who gave what. It's long. For example, a factory that recycles cotton cloth donated a bale or so of rags (for cleaning and drying pipe joints before fitting). Area hospitals sent two big boxes of first aid materials.

"Thank goodness we didn't have to open them," Mike Taylor says. "We're thinking of sending them to the next community for good luck."

Setting a Record

Drive along the Smith Ridge road today with Taylor, and you'll understand why the work sometimes went slowly. "This ditch—I remember it well," he says, pointing to the roadside. "Solid sandstone. Hard to dig. You get into that sandstone, it's just like sandpaper. Wears everything out." Then he'll give a succinct explanation of why the pipe trench often had to be cut through rock on the inner side of the road rather than dug on an outside shoulder: "It was because of the shoulder . . . we don't have any."

On the worst day, a crew managed to lay only 131 feet of pipe. But on one remarkable day, they installed 2,440 feet of pipe—a national record for STEP projects.

The Virginia DHCD had estimated that the work on the project would take six to nine months using a private contractor. The grant agreement with Smith Ridge was for 24 months—standard for projects of this kind.

"We had no idea," Wallace notes, "how much longer it would take a bunch of volunteers to do it. It is safe to say that we thought it would take them longer by far than the time needed by a professional private contractor."

In fact, the Smith Ridge volunteers laid the last of the main distribution line on June 25, just over 80 calendar days after their start date. The line reached almost seven miles and included 1,111 feet of six-inch line and 35,484 feet of four-inch line. By August 20, the day of the system's dedication ceremony, they had installed an additional 16,895 feet of three-quarter-inch pipe connecting 62 houses and four churches to the main line. Tests showed not one leak, either on the main line or on any of the connections.

Ultimately, 64 of the community's 142 residents, almost all of its able-bodied adults, worked on the water project. Some worked every day. Altogether, they put in 3,652 hours, more than twice the number of the project's paid hours. That doesn't include time volunteers spent installing individual household meters.

The final cost accounting is still incomplete, but preliminary estimates suggest a total of $250,000, well under the budgeted $350,000. It appears that Smith Ridge completed its million-dollar project for one-fourth of that amount.

"Never could we have envisioned what has occurred here," said Virginia Governor James Gilmore, speaking at the August dedication ceremony. "You have proven that through innovation and community spirit, we can partner and achieve fantastic results . . . . Smith Ridge is not only a great success story, but you are also an inspiration for other prospective Self-Help communities across this state and country."

"There aren't enough adjectives to describe how well these people have pulled this off," says Wallace. "They've set a standard nationally for people doing this kind of work."

Another Self-Help Virginia project was completed this fall in Appalachia: the Chandler Mountain Water Project in Wise County. It's a smaller project than Smith Ridge, but the community is smaller, too—only about 20 households—and the terrain is even steeper and stonier. Basing his estimate in part on the remarkable example of Smith Ridge, Wallace expected Chandler Mountain to finish its project sometime in October. Residents celebrated their new system on October 17.

A World of Difference

Talk to people in Smith Ridge about their project, and you'll hear low-key expressions of pride but no bragging. Instead, you'll hear variations on two themes.

The first is gratitude for the water.

For example, Narcie Smith will be 95 in December. At one time or another, she's relied on many water sources: a cistern, a "water boy" (a line-and-pulley device for drawing spring water up a steep hillside), a well with a hand-operated pump, and a well with an electric pump—not to mention melted snow on days when everything was frozen.

"It makes a world of difference," she says about the ease of getting water from a faucet. "We won't have to go down and wonder if the cistern is going dry before we can get all the washing out."

Ann Shreve, one of Narcie Smith's daughters, recalls past worries about dry summers: "When you did a load of wash, you had to measure. Now you're living like a rich person. You're living in the same house, but you feel like a rich person. You really do."

During the work on the project, Shreve coordinated cooking and food service for the road crews—hot meals and cold drinks for an average of 14 people a day, five days a week. She praises the volunteer cooks and servers: "If I needed a dessert, I'd just call on one of the leaders and say, 'I need a cake for tomorrow.' "

How does she feel about all that work now?

"You got to know everybody," she says. "Before, you just knew their names and that was it. People [outside Smith Ridge] would say, 'You people are crazy! Other people didn't have to do this to get water.' " She shakes her head and laughs. "They don't know what they missed!"

That's the second message: hard as it was, the project was satisfying and brought the community together.

Several Smith Ridge residents (and the Taylors, who recently moved off the ridge but still have family there) mention that they have other community self-help projects in mind. One is a cleanup effort to remove litter and trash. Another is using volunteers to paint a bright stripe along the edges of the Smith Ridge road to make it safer when fog covers the ridge.

"There's so much more here than so many feet of pipe in the ground," comments TRI South director Hanna. "There's so much collaboration among the residents and the people who helped them. They've found an asset that was undiscovered and is never going to leave Smith Ridge."

Fred D. Baldwin is a freelance writer based in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.