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The Nation

Drained of Cash and Flush With Water Trouble

Old pipes are cracking and towns can't afford to fix them. The EPA estimates the tab in the billions. Some residents offer sweat equity.

October 05, 2003|David A. Lieb | Associated Press Writer

CLARK, Mo. — The park in this small town looks like it's home to a huge mole. Twin mounds of dirt poke up from the grass between the pavilion and playground. Another pile protrudes from the crumpled sidewalk near the front of City Hall.

But the mounds aren't connected by a varmint's tenacious tunneling.

Their link is the town's water pipes, which have leaked, cracked and sometimes exploded in gushers nearly 30 times in the past nine months, resulting in an endless cycle of digs and repairs

Every time a water pipe breaks, someone -- or everyone in Clark, pop. 275 -- loses the ability to bathe, boil food, fill the toilet or simply sip tap water.

"It gets a little aggravating, especially if you're taking a shower or trying to fix dinner or something. It's broken constantly," Diane Barstow, 70, said as she watched a backhoe dig out a water pipe that had been leaking for weeks in her neighbor's lawn.

Unfortunately, Clark is suffering from a common affliction.

In rural communities nationwide, water mains laid generations ago are cracking because of age. And cash-strapped towns can't afford to fix the extensive underground systems.

Repair, replacement or improvement could cost the country from $154 billion to $446 billion over the next 20 years, according to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency study.

"Conditions in small communities are becoming increasingly desperate," said John Mori, executive director of the National Environmental Services Center at West Virginia University, a federally funded organization that provides technical assistance on small-town water, sewer and trash projects.

In some towns, residents are picking up shovels themselves to do the work -- and save money.

When Corning, Kan., population 170, learned that it would cost $418,000 to replace 4.1 miles of frequently leaking pipes -- or about $2,500 per person -- nearly 100 people volunteered to help.

They offered not only to dig trenches and lay pipe, but to cook food, baby-sit and run errands, said City Clerk Diane Haverkamp -- enough labor to cut the cost in half.

Kansas officials are weighing whether to let Corning pay its share toward a state grant with sweat.

The Kansas initiative is patterned after a self-help program developed by the Rensselaerville Institute in New York, a nonprofit education center that began encouraging communities to help themselves about 30 years ago. Its community partnership program is used in 12 states.

In Virginia, officials estimate that the $4.6 million distributed to 22 communities through its self-help grant program shaved off a total of $8.2 million from what the projects would have cost otherwise.

When told of the troubles in Clark -- which lost an average of 14% of its supply each month last year to leaks -- Rensselaerville Institute President Hal Williams asked how he could get in touch with people there.

"My hunch is there would be some reasonable opportunity" for them to do some of the replacement work on the system, he said. Engineers say the solution in Clark is to replace almost the entire 3 miles of the town's 40- to 50-year-old waterworks with new high-quality plastic pipe -- a $578,720 task.

About 40 people showed up for an outdoor City Council meeting in park this summer to hear about the prospects of getting a Community Development Block Grant.

Because Clark's water-main breaks sometimes result in orders to boil the water, there is a public health concern that could increase the community's chances of winning a grant, officials say.

However the job gets done, locals see it as more than a matter of relieving inconvenience; it's a matter of survival.

For years, the public water system has been one of the only things holding together this north-central Missouri town, about 20 miles north of the bustling college town of Columbia.

The population of Clark is little different today than it was a century ago, when Omar Bradley, who would become a World War II general, grew up there. A cabin that once served as a museum to him has closed.

The town once had a bank, a hotel, a grocery store, a barber shop and two theaters. But the only business today is Truesdell Brothers Grain, a farm supply store and grain elevator that employees seven people -- none of whom live in town.

Consequently, there is no city sales tax, no police force and only a slim city budget, which derives much of its money from water bills.

Mayor Ken Storla, who came to Clark 13 years ago from Las Vegas, fears that the town would dry up if it lost its municipal water supply. But with the potential for new water pipes and a convenience store at the intersection of U.S. 63, who knows, the town might be revived.

Once the water troubles are solved, there's hope for paving gravel side roads. A $410,540 state grant will pay for tearing down five dilapidated houses and fixing up 21 others for low- to moderate-income residents.

After attending the council meeting on the potential water-system grant, Catherine Reynard, 59, was already looking forward to the day when she could put away her family's emergency bucket commode and stop worrying about dirty dishes piling up in the sink for lack of water.

"I'm just so glad we're going to get new water one of these days," she said. "It's going to be great not to worry about getting caught in the shower when the water runs out."

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