08.10.2022

Extending Clean Drinking Water to West Virginia’s Rural Communities

Do you ever stop to think about where your clean drinking water comes from? Many of us have never experienced the lack of treated potable water, but there are rural communities and remote areas where people have never had access to clean drinking water. That really puts the occasional brief electrical outage or internet interruption into perspective.

At E.L. Robinson, the combination of what we do and where we most often work makes us keenly aware of the challenges and opportunities of getting clean water to remote communities. Our Utilities Engineering team does extensive work in the area of water treatment and distribution, wastewater treatment and collection, and stormwater management. Our homes and operations are based in West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina.

We have first-hand knowledge - sometimes from family - about communities that need access to clean drinking water, and seeing the impact is one of the most rewarding things we do. They often feel personal to us, but projects like these are also massive and complex.

One such community was Big Harts Creek and Logan County Public Service District (LCPSD) and surrounding areas, where we worked to extend 47 miles of water line across two rugged counties in four phases across eight years to serve approximately 700 previously unserved customers in Big Harts Creek and surrounding communities.

E.L. Robinson designed and permitted all phases. We’ll use this project as our example as we describe the various phases (the smaller projects within the overall project) and stages (the steps we take to complete a phase and/or an overall project like this) of the process.

Getting Clean Drinking Water to the People Who Need It

To give you a sense of what’s involved in extending a water system to get clean drinking water to remote areas where people really need it, we’ve outlined 10 steps or stages, some of which are repeated at each phase.

Step 1: Preliminary Engineering Report (PER)

The very first step in a clean drinking water project of any scale is to conduct a Preliminary Engineering Report (PER) to analyze the project from every angle. At this early stage, we’re looking for basic descriptions of existing water facilities and how the project would address issues, including possible alternatives, cost analysis, and a recommended course of action.

Step 2: Environmental Clearances

Next comes preparation for gaining environmental clearances through evaluation of and reporting on wetland and stream delineation as well as threatened and endangered species. This stage also includes analysis of historical sites to ensure proper preservation.

Step 3: Planning

The Planning stage lays the groundwork for the Preliminary Design. This is the stage where we create the schematic and hydraulic model for technical feasibility. It involves field markups, key locations, and existing utility coordination. Although water is often the first utility to go underground in areas like this, we need to make sure that we’re not going to disrupt any existing infrastructure.

Planning also includes the important steps of assessing environmental impacts on human communities, such as locations that are low-to-moderate income (LMI) or Environmental Justice communities as well as gaining public involvement and approvals.

Step 4: Preliminary Design

The fourth step is Preliminary Design, in which we determine what we plan to do and where the pipe will go between the existing infrastructure and the people who need clean drinking water. The overall system layout outlines how the water will move through the system with initial hydraulics and phase planning.

For example, with tens of thousands of feet of line, we would need strategically-spaced storage tanks with booster pump stations to provide adequate pressure along the way. In this stage, we say where, when, and how.

Step 5: Design Review and Owner Comments

Before we develop the Final Design, we need input and approval from the key stakeholders, particularly the owner, for example, the LCPSD. Even when we’re local, the owner's input on local terrain, considerations, and nuances is vital to proceeding smoothly through Final Design and permitting.

Step 6: Final Design

Using the preliminary design and review comments, we map out the Final Design phase by phase. This is the stage where we do all of the necessary permitting and land acquisition based on the hydraulic model created in the Planning stage.

The Final Design work may not all happen at once. Instead, it is likely to occur phase by phase so that one part of the project can proceed while the next is still in design and permitting.

Step 7: Bidding

The Bidding step ultimately determines who will complete the construction work. This too happens phase by phase, and it might not involve the same contractors across all phases. There are likely to be multiple contractors per phase.

Step 8: Construction

This is where the rubber meets the road, or rather, the waterline meets the mountain. During Construction, contractors dig and lay pipe, which is made of a combination of Ductile Iron Pipe, PVC, or other metals and plastics.

The American Water Works Association (AWWA) and the National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) determine the standards for these materials. Copper is for limited use, and must not contain lead. Ductile Iron Pipe is the gold standard. It is ¼ inch thick steel with bituminous exterior coating and is cement-lined inside, all in the interest of securing clean drinking water for decades to come.

Construction can involve multiple contractors across the phases, with each phase operating as its own project. It all builds up to the one overall hydraulic model in the feasibility schematic created in the Planning stage.

Step 9: System Initiation

Once all phases are complete, there is an important step to ensure the integrity of the system. We perform sample testing across multiple points to confirm that the treated water is safe for customer consumption. The people in the community now have direct access to clean drinking water.

Step 10: Project Close Out

During Project Close Out, we also reallocate any leftover funds. That doesn’t always happen, but if it does, the money usually goes into further line extensions or improvements for the surrounding areas.

Finally, once the water is flowing, the community often hosts a groundbreaking ceremony complete with local and state dignitaries and many of the consumers receiving the water. The impact of the system is palpable - people are genuinely tickled and very appreciative. To them, it’s often a happy surprise. To us, it’s a basic need that we are honored to provide.

“I’m very happy to have public water,” affirms Big Harts Creek resident Martin Browning. “No more salt. No more water softener problems. No pump problems. My water is as clear as can be. No problems since it was put in. I’m very happy to have public water!”