In 2015, Dwain and Tanya Waldo were sure they’d found their dream retirement home in a small development about six miles outside Rapid City, S.D. He’s a master sergeant at Ellsworth Air Force base there, so Cedar Gulch II was close enough to get back and forth conveniently but far away enough to bask in the landscape’s natural beauty.

Little did they suspect the nightmare awaiting them. Drinking water with very high gross alpha particle and combined radium (226/228) levels, which increases cancer risk. A realtor who didn’t know about it and a home inspector who didn’t catch it. State regulators telling homeowners to fix it. A bankrupt developer who didn’t formalize access to a well and wastewater lagoon on property owned by a rancher next door. Grazing cattle occasionally knocking out power to the well’s pump. Unpaid engineering bills.

“That’s not what I was expecting from trying to live a peaceful quite life out in the country,” says the 38-year-old father of two daughters. “I was more concerned about the higher-than-normal homeowner association’s water charge ($100/month). When I contacted the treasurer, he gave us the entire story on the water system. I was furious and could not believe the situation we got ourselves into.”

He and his wife expect to live in Cedar Gulch for decades, so they’re not concerned about resale value. But they’d like safe drinking water and more control over infrastructure that supports their community. These are not issues the average homeowner must think about, much less deal with. However, those in rural and unincorporated America are routinely more involved in water and sewer issues than their big-city counterparts because centralizing collection and treatment is too expensive. Unfortunately, they don’t have as much access to engineering and legal expertise required to comply with environmental regulations.

“I came to realize most developments outside city limits have to deal with some sewer and water problem,” Waldo says. “The difference is they’re more established than us. Our district is pretty new in dealing with the issue.”

Getting Right with Regulators

Fortunately, licensed engineers and engineering students across the country volunteer their time and expertise to resolve such issues through a network of non-profit and quasi-governmental organizations. Cedar Gulch’s solution began with Jim Jones, a Minnesota water and wastewater supervisor who’d moved to Black Hawk, S.D., with his wife and got a job as technical assistance provider at the Midwest Assistance Program (MAP). Established in 1979, MAP is a member of the Rural Community Assistance Partnership, a federally funded nonprofit organization. Jones had heard about the Community Engineering Corps (CEC), an Engineers Without Borders (EWB)-type program launched in 2014 by EWB, American Water Works Association, and American Society of Civil Engineers to bring water and wastewater technical expertise to underserved communities. Through Jones, CEC found its first drinking water project.

Cedar Gulch’s drinking water comes from a 2,500-foot well in the Inyan Kara aquifer, which is very old and has been in contact with bedrock radiologicals for a very long time. Most wells in the aquifer have radium and gross alpha issues, but Cedar Gulch water had five times more radium than the U.S. EPA maximum contaminant level (MCL) and exceeded MCL for gross alpha particles. Accordingly, the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources had repeatedly cited the development for noncompliance.

Jones pulled in the Community Engineering Corps to help residents find a viable solution. He recruited South Dakota State University’s EWB-USA chapter to work with EWB-USA’s Northern Virginia Professional Chapter, which had applied to work on the Cedar Gulch project. Five engineering students interviewed residents, collected maps and measurements, took photos, and gathered other details for the Virginia-based engineers. Together, they developed six possible treatment options (see sidebar):

  • Point-of-entry (POE)/point-of-use (POU) treatment using the subdivision’s existing well
  • Centralizing treatment with existing well
  • Partnering with a nearby subdivision to use their well
  • Partnering with neighboring subdivision to use their well and the Cedar Gulch II lagoon
  • Install a new well
  • Connect to Rapid City’s water supply.

After doing a 20-year lifecycle cost comparison of each, the team recommended a combination of the first two options: point-of-entry (POE)/point-of-use (POU) treatment units with in-home ion exchange water softeners and reverse osmosis filtration on the specific drinking water lines at $4,000 per home.

This solve the problem technically, but not legally. Federal and state regulations require treatment systems in housing developments using POE/POU treatment to be owned and maintained by a water district. Homeowner associations don’t qualify. To take on asset ownership and management, hire a lawyer to negotiate long-term access to the well and lagoon, and apply for grants and loans, Jones helped residents file paperwork with the county to form a water and sewer district that can levy taxes to fund expenses.

The state asked the district to write operation and maintenance procedures and contract with a certified water treatment specialist to maintain the units every month. Then the well pump gave out. Residents were without water for seven days while the district applied for a $25,000 emergency loan from Communities Unlimited, a Midwest Assistance Program partner, to install a new pump with variable frequency drive (VFD) control. They’ve got a decade to pay that off, which they’ll do partly through a county program that allows homeowners to charge themselves extra property tax to pay for public projects instead of paying the state-imposed maximum mil levy. (Tell that to members at your next council meeting who say constituents are complaining about proposed sewer and water rate increases.)

Getting Right with the State

Funding also will come from a $50,000 grant through a new state program for systems with 50 or fewer connections, which the district applied for this year. (Very Small System Compliance Grant applicants aren’t required to submit a preliminary engineering report (PER) or bidding, just two estimates.) It was at this point the state realized the founding documents the county approved didn’t name the state statute under which the district had been formed. South Dakota has several district types, each with different rules and authority. The district must now repetition homeowners to form a district, hold an election, and write new formation documents. In the interim, however, the state has agreed to award the full grant amount once the paperwork’s in proper order.

The community’s sanitary system consists of a septic tank at each home and a collection system that directs flow to a lagoon on the neighboring ranch. Jones is helping resolve long-term access and ensure easements are in place to allow the development to continue using the lagoon. This is important because lots aren’t large enough to support individual drain fields, the lagoon is a potential discharge point if centralized ion exchange groundwater treatment is ever installed, and operations and maintenance expenses are the community’s responsibility.

The district-that’s-not-quite-a-district had already retained a lawyer to hammer out the access agreement. The lawyer will focus on getting the district set up correctly first and then look at the long term agreements.

When all’s said and done, the grand total is expected to be $70,000. However, because the development has a plan to address regulatory issues, two lots have sold.

“It was and still is sometimes very frustrating working with lawyers, the state, well operators, testing facilities, and other members in the community,” says Waldo. “Sometimes the state acts as if we put ourselves in this position and should be the expert at correcting the problems. Residents are irritated with the situation and when they need answers they turn to us, the board’s members, who are in the same predicament. We’ve all pulled together to mitigate most of our issues, but still have a way to go.”

In the year since I heard about these poor homeowners at the 2017 American Water Works Association convention, the saga has taken yet another turn. The developer is suing for ownership of four lots, and the lawsuit makes the rancher loathe to make any hasty decisions. That puts the finish line a bit further out for Cedar Gulch residents but, Jones says, they will reach it.

“The state has allowed them the time they need to solve this issue,” he says. “The county has now been educated and will inform other districts in the same boat to make the change.”

Decision Matrix
Engineers Without Borders (EWB)-USA’s Northern Virginia Professional Chapter and South Dakota State University’s EWB-USA chapter teamed up to identify potential solutions to Cedar Gulch’s radium-laced water.

Alternative Initial Cost20-Year Lifecycle Cost
Point of entry (POE)/point of use (POU)$42,600$327,824
Central ion exchange $174,500 $460,699
Central HMO $343,600$545,929
New well$401,600$690,377
Regionalized ion exchange$800,500$1,173,690
Connect to Rapid City water $1,499,000 $1,868,817