When drillers decide to give back to the community, it makes sense that improving access to safe water would be a cause they would support. If you read about Michael Campana’s talk at the National Ground Water Association 2013 Groundwater Expo about “hydrophilanthropy” efforts to bring water to Central America, then you know that drillers are well aware of the worldwide need for safe drinking water supplies. Not only that, they want to make a difference.
While the lack of safe, clean water seems like a problem only found in developing countries, there are surprisingly thousands of people in the United States who don’t have access to safe drinking water, either. Although there are pockets across the country where people lack clean drinking water, the problem is most prevalent in the Deep South and remote western states.
A group of industry members in the Water Systems Council decided to work to bring clean water to the people of the U.S. who needed it, so they formed a 501(c)3 non-profit organization called the Water Well Trust. The roster of Water Well Trust board members reads like a virtual “Who’s Who” in the drilling industry, including executives from Merrill Manufacturing Company, the 2M Company, Murray Drilling and Campbell Manufacturing. The Water Well Trust was first funded by donations from the group’s board members and other industry leaders, but they hope to attract government and corporate attention to gain additional support. The organization uses its donations to rehabilitate existing wells or build new ones to help these underserved homes.
Bringing Water to the Ozarks
Homeowners were encouraged to apply for assistance from the Trust. Marge Frazee, a homeowner from Arkansas, was among the first group of applicants chosen to have a new well serve their property. Frazee and six of her neighbors had lived without any access to fresh water for 17 years, hauling gallons of water for their daily needs like bathing, cleaning and cooking, which was expensive and inefficient.
The location of Frazee’s property is in Benton County, Ark., known for being the home of Wal-Mart Stores’ headquarters. In such a relatively affluent county, it is surprising that there were more than 120 families who lacked such a basic commodity. That’s what prompted Frazee to submit an application.
“I was desperate to get water. I thought about it all the time,” Frazee says. Her husband is on disability, and hauling water back and forth in a 250-gallon drum in the back of their pickup truck was a serious hardship that they had to repeat every two to three days. Hauling water, particularly on rural roads, is dangerous and requires a great deal of physical strength with full tanks weighing over 3,000 pounds. Even though her family used the hauled water for bathing and cooking, Frazee was too worried about contamination to drink it.
She spent a lot of her time thinking about how to secure a dependable, safe supply of water. “I looked everywhere to get help so that we could get running water, and we were told many times that we’d get hooked up to the water system, but it never happened. It was really an answer to prayer when I found the Water Systems Council,” Frazee says. She contacted the group’s hotline and submitted an application for assistance on behalf of herself and her neighbors.
The Water Well Trust chose Frazee and her neighbors to participate in their first pilot project. “It would have cost $1.2 million dollars to bring out more water lines,” said Margaret Martens, executive director of the Water Systems Council. “We were able to build wells much more affordably. Now, we have 20 more households in northwest Arkansas on a waiting list for future opportunities.” Thanks to the donations of its members, the nonprofit was able to issue low-cost loans to the homeowners to cover up to 75 percent of the cost of installing new wells.
The Water Well Trust completed the project and went on to begin a second pilot project in Milledgeville, Ga. “In Milledgeville, they had old, shallow, contaminated wells. The local authorities had always planned to bring more water lines out there, but it just became too cost-prohibitive so we decided to do wells instead,” Martens says.
A combination of CBDG funds and donations from Water Systems Council members and Xylem Watermark allowed the Milledgeville project to go forward. “Our funding means that we can work with families to make sure they can afford their wells. We usually provide it at 0 to 2 percent interest over 20 years, and the average monthly payment ranges anywhere from 11 to 47 dollars,” Martens says.
Considering that grant recipients are low-income families who could not afford a new well otherwise, the group is able to help those who need it the most.
The Group’s Future
Stephen Anderson, the president of Merrill Manufacturing in Iowa, was one of the original founders of the Water Well Trust and is current chairman of the board. While he saw the obvious need to give back to the communities where residents didn’t have access to safe water, he also saw another benefit: showing the public and government that well drilling can be a viable alternative to conventional municipal water systems.
“We really want to educate people that multiple wells or a group of wells is a very cost advantageous option compared to miles and miles of pipelines in a municipal system,” says Anderson. “These projects really show the industry and the government what we can do.”
Anderson is a big believer in the value of well drilling and sees it as a much more efficient and cost effective way to deliver water to the parts of the country where it’s still needed, compared to the time and expense involved in setting up new municipal systems.
Martens agrees with Anderson about the cost efficiency of setting up new wells. “When you think about the fact that it costs over $600,000 to replace lines in a municipal system, $6,600 for a new well is much more affordable,” Martens says. The high cost of running new lines is so prohibitive that many areas can’t install or expand municipal systems, even as the population grows in areas where it’s needed.
Getting corporate and government support could allow the nonprofit to expand their help to many more of the communities in need. “We tried contacting Wal-Mart for donations since they’re right there in Benton County. Unfortunately, our request didn’t meet the parameters, but we’re also reaching out to [nearby] Tyson Foods,” Martens says. “We’re also applying for a USDA grant in spring or summer 2014, which would really help us.”
The Water Well Trust also welcomes donations from any members of the industry, so this could be a great opportunity to get involved in charitable giving. As donations increase, the group hopes to help even more families since the need is so great.
Anderson strongly believes that the drilling industry can show the government how to deliver water to people in a more efficient manner. “The government is really missing the boat by spending so much money on municipal systems,” Anderson says. “Water well systems are cheaper and faster to install and cheaper to maintain. We could solve this problem quickly if we focused our energy in the right directions.
We’d really like to get recognized at the state and federal [government] level so we could show them how this can be done better. Right now, they’re just throwing all this money at installing lines and we could do so many more houses with wells instead,” he says.
“In a day and age when the government is facing massive debt, we really need to start looking at how we can do a lot more with a lot less,” Anderson adds. Well drillers can be at the forefront of leading that charge.