The Community Engineering Corps recently completed its first-ever drinking water project by helping a small South Dakota subdivision figure out ways to improve its water supply, which regularly exceeds state and federal standards for total radium and gross alpha particles.
Cedar Gulch II has 10 homes, 27 residents – and drinking water that contains five times more radium than the maximum contaminant level set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“This is a small community in rural South Dakota. They would never have the resources to go out and locate a qualified engineering consulting company that they could afford. So this was right in line with what the Community Engineering Corps is supposed to be,” said Jim Malley, chair of American Water Works Association’s (AWWA) Technical and Education Council and a member of the project’s Technical Review Committee.
The CECorps was established in 2014 to connect volunteer engineers with underserved communities in the United States facing infrastructure challenges. It is a partnership of AWWA, the American Society of Civil Engineers and Engineers Without Borders USA.
“For me, this was a way to give back to the community and the profession that I’ve belonged to for over 29 years,” said Bruce Bartley, a retired water quality scientist and AWWA member, who was also a member of the project’s Technical Review Committee.
The CECorps currently manages 34 projects on issues ranging from water supply and sanitation, to energy, agriculture and information systems. Sixteen of the projects relate to water supply issues, said Lindsey Geiger, project engineer with AWWA.
Virginia Engineers Head Team
In the case of Cedar Gulch, the project team consisted of engineers from EWB-USA’s Northern Virginia Professional Chapter. They studied the development’s source of drinking water – a 2,500-foot-deep well located on a neighboring ranch.
“We did a lot of research,” said Bernie Krantz, a CECorps project team member. “We identified fundamental groundwater quality issues and operational issues. We investigated their current system, and their alternatives for dealing with the radium. We did a comparative analysis of the alternatives, and looked at the short- and long-term effectiveness for each.”
During the project, the CECorps team partnered with an EWB-USA chapter of students from South Dakota State University to provide mentorship and guidance for their capstone project design course. Five students made a field trip to Cedar Gulch, took photos of the community and water and wastewater systems, and worked with the project team on an alternatives analysis.
“This was a great learning experience,” said one student, Deidre Beck. “In school, the problems presented on homework and tests are usually fairly simple. In comparison, the issues faced by Cedar Gulch II were multi-faceted and complicated. Finding the solution was more challenging, but more rewarding. It was a great way to see what working as an engineer would be like after graduation.”
Meanwhile, the CECorps engineers focused on six possible solutions: point-of-entry, point-of-use treatment using the subdivision’s existing well, centralizing treatment with the existing well, partnering with a nearby subdivision to use their well, partnering with the neighboring subdivision to use their well and the Cedar Gulch II lagoon, installing a new well, and connecting to Rapid City’s water supply.
Ultimately, the project team focused on one alternative, which happened to be the least expensive: district-managed, point-of-entry, point-of-use drinking water treatment units, using the Cedar Gulch well water with in-home water softeners and ion exchange technologies.
The project’s Technical Review Committee – – which included Malley, Bartley and Jeffrey Starke, environmental sequence curriculum coordinator at West Point Academy — supported the project team’s final recommendation, but it will be up to the homeowners to decide whether to accept it and how to proceed.
Problem Began Years Ago
Cedar Gulch II, which is adjacent to another subdivision called Cedar Gulch I but not formally associated with it, was first developed about a decade ago and is 6 miles east of Rapid City. It was originally planned to include 130 homes.
The 10 residents who purchased property believed they had an agreement that the developer would provide water and wastewater disposal, according to the final CECorps project report. But a financing issue derailed the project and the water system was never fully established, said John Stephenson, president of the Cedar Gulch II Water and Sanitation District.
The district is a levying organization that can tax and collect funds from the 10 homeowners to support whatever treatment system the residents ultimately choose.
In the meantime, Stephenson said the homeowners aren’t drinking the untreated radium-laced water. Some drink bottled water, while Stephenson and others installed softeners and reverse osmosis systems in their homes so they could drink the well water.
Although the homeowners took those measures – which are similar to the project team’s final recommendation — the state determined they were not in compliance because their home systems were not managed by the water district. Federal and state regulations require that treatment systems in housing developments be owned and maintained by a water district, Stephenson said, adding that the district will have to spend about $4,000 per home to be in compliance.
Radioactive contaminants naturally occur in groundwater and are regulated by the EPA and, in the case of Cedar Gulch, the South Dakota Department of Environment and Natural Resources. The subdivision has been cited repeatedly for exceeding radium and gross alpha maximum contaminant levels.
Some people who drink water containing excessive amounts of certain types of radioactive particles over long periods may have an increased risk of developing cancer.
Krantz said he was inspired by how Cedar Gulch residents handled their predicament.
“The thing that struck me about this group is that they were put in a very bad situation and they could have been quite frustrated,” Krantz said. “My sense is that they were very gracious, and optimistic that they would get a resolution. It was a good group to work with.”
The Road Ahead
Now that Cedar Gulch homeowners have the project team’s report, they can apply for funding to make the necessary changes. Stephenson said he expects the community to accept the project team’s final recommendation.
The community is working with the Midwest Assistance Program to secure grants and low-interest loans, and submit details of their final plans to the South Dakota DENR. MAP is a community-based organization that was established in 1979 to help communities and tribal nations find solutions to their infrastructure and development needs through information, resource management, expertise and technical assistance.
MAP is also a member of the Rural Community Assistance Partnership, a federally funded non-profit and leader in rural community development.
Stephenson said the CECorps report gives Cedar Gulch II residents peace of mind that their water problem will eventually be solved. He said some homeowners wanted to move years ago, but couldn’t because they would have sold at a loss due to the tainted drinking water supply. Most wanted to stay, he said, and work through it.
“We like our country living,” Stephenson said. “You look back up a creek bottom. It has deer and all sorts of wildlife, and mountains. The people bought the homes because they were sold on the view.”
Now, because of the work of the CECorps, Cedar Gulch residents can take permanent steps to make their drinking water safe.
“That document is our gateway,” Stephenson said. “We’ve been waiting for years and years to move forward; now we can do that.”