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CECorps supports Montana community’s water infrastructure

A small Montana community facing three daunting challenges – aging water and wastewater systems, a retiring water workforce, and a population with many low-income households – is turning to the Community Engineering Corps (CECorps) to find solutions.

CECorps was formed five years ago as an alliance of the American Water Works Association (AWWA), Engineers Without Borders – USA, and the American Society of Civil Engineers.Community Engineering Corps logo Its mission is to bring underserved communities and volunteers together to advance local infrastructure solutions.

Stevensville – Montana’s first permanent settlement -- dates back to the mid-1800s, when it was established as a mission and trading post. While the population of this small, rural town is on the rise, the wages of nearly 20 percent of its 2,000 residents are below poverty levels.

Stevensville’s dedicated public works department manages the town’s water supply and treatment systems, balancing its core duty of protecting public health through safe water while addressing critical infrastructure maintenance, operations and services.

“Due to its limited financial resources and the pending retirement of its senior staff, the department faced the prospect of losing valuable institutional knowledge critical to the daily functioning of the town’s water systems,” said Stephen Barr, AWWA’s manager of community engineering programs.

Luckily, Kurt Vause, a 33-year member of AWWA and chair of the Water Utility Council, had a personal connection with the department and brought the project to CECorps. “It matched the core values of CECorps and AWWA by addressing water network information systems, databases, and relevant training for incoming public works staff,” Barr said.

Volunteers in action

As the AWWA volunteer project manager, Vause worked with town representatives to develop a scope of work and engineering services agreement detailing the services and technical support that CECorps volunteers would provide. CECorps facilitated a U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Utility Services Technical Assistance and Training grant to finance equipment, software and consulting services. CECorps also provided liability coverage for the design work and a quality assurance process to review the resulting technical products.

In the first phase of the project, Vause and volunteers from the AWWA Montana Section worked with Stevensville staff to develop a geolocated infrastructure asset database.

“The goal was to build and populate a digital map that would enable the public works department to efficiently perform ongoing system maintenance,” Barr said. “This was critical to the sustainability of drinking water services because it combined the historic system knowledge of the public works staff with observations and data from the field.”

High school volunteersTwo local high school students were recruited as volunteers to work with Vause, using GPS surveying equipment to mark locations of infrastructure and importing it into a Geographic Information System database to create an inventory of all the assets in the utility’s physical network. (Photo credit: Stevensville volunteers)

“A key part of the project’s success so far is the high level of community engagement,” said Barr. “The team is producing a living record of the water network in a way that future public works staff and engineers can utilize to maintain, repair and expand the network.”

The project’s second phase will reduce long-term costs and revitalize systems for the future by creating a computer-based maintenance management system for water system assets. To populate this future system, records and data will be collected from staff notes about system performance, expected remaining asset lives, equipment safety, and other operation and maintenance information. CECorps will continue to support the program through USDA grant funding as the project expands and will provide engineering and technical quality assurance for products eventually delivered to Stevensville.

In addition to the Stevensville project, CECorps supports AWWA volunteers working across the United States. There have been 115 active CECorps projects since the program started, including 52 water and wastewater projects.

“Stevensville is representative of an increasing threat to water service provision and infrastructure support across the United States, and AWWA’s continued support of this program demonstrates the importance of these services to protecting public health and well-being,” Barr said.   

To learn more about getting involved contact Stephen Barr.

 

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