Small-town fortitude — combined with creative thinking — helped this treatment plant fund upgrades that would have otherwise been too costly
When Julie Beresford was elected mayor of Cameron, W.Va., in 2012, restoring the city’s long-neglected water treatment system took top priority. The system had faulty valves and inefficient pumps, but it also needed other expensive improvements.
“There was a plan prepared to abandon our treatment works and connect to a neighboring public service district,” she says.
However, Beresford didn’t want the city to lose its self-reliance, so she discarded that plan.
Years of decline
Cameron, a small city in West Virginia’s eastern panhandle, has seen its share of ups and downs. Today, the city has about 1,000 residents — a sharp decline from its steel and coal heyday of nearly 2,000 residents.
For decades, city government used net surplus revenue from the sale of water to partially fund municipal operations. Still, term after term, city leaders failed to maintain treatment and delivery systems. Upgrades occurred only when necessary and everything slowly declined.
For a while, things seemed brighter when the city received two grants to upgrade and repair water delivery infrastructure. That work wrapped up in 2011 — about a year before Beresford took office — leaving about $62,000 in unspent grant funds.
Cameron’s system is rather simple: Gravity moves water from an 18-million-gallon reservoir to the circa 1952 treatment plant. There it is filtered, disinfected and pumped to a large storage tank and then delivered by gravity to users.
In 2012, the primary shut-off valves — one at the reservoir and one in the treatment plant — failed and would not fully close. Additionally, failed backflow preventers kept pumps running as they pumped the same gallons over and over. These leaking, inefficient pumps showed signs of imminent and total failure.
Revival of a system
To start, Beresford hired Tim Flint as a full-time plant operator. Since 1999, Flint, a certified water-treatment operator, had worked for the city part time and intermittently. Several times Flint had quit when he was prevented from making repairs he believed necessary. Ever an optimist, he always returned, hoping for more support and a better outcome.
Since going full time — and with the mayor and council’s support — operating costs have fallen, equipment reliability has been restored and the plant has been completely rebuilt to current standards.
“It wasn’t easy, but it was worth it,” say Beresford and Flint.
How they did it is a tale of self-reliance and a can-do spirit that’s at the heart of small-town America.
A little recycling goes a long way
Aware of the $62,000 in grant funds, Flint worked with an engineer to detail a restoration and upgrade plan for all valves, pumps and control systems along with alterations to the clarifier and new process-control software. The engineer estimated a total project cost of $350,000.
“We knew the unspent grant funds were clearly not enough,” says Beresford.
Beresford and Flint knew local contractors wouldn’t jump at low-bid government work because the local Marcellus shale oil boom was paying top dollar. Outside money wasn’t an option, so the duo considered local resources.
Flint used the engineer’s plan to answers two questions: Which parts and materials were required and what skills and equipment resources were needed for installation? He also looked at available materials and labor, which included two street crew workers and a sewer plant operator.
It turned out the plant had a lot of scrap material, including old, dysfunctional valves, pipe pieces and pump parts.
“We got about $1,400 from the scrap yard, which pretty well paid for the paint and other clean-up supplies,” Flint says.
“Lots of people showed up to help with low-tech tasks like cleaning up and painting the building and all of the pipes and pumps exposed in there,” Beresford says.
“We would be at a work site and a local firefighter or one of our police officers or a local resident would stop by and ask, ‘What can I do to help you out today?’ That really helps when you’re covered in mud and find you need a part or whatever chased down and brought to you,” Flint says.
Beresford’s husband, a plumber/pipe-fitter, cheerfully volunteered to handle valve repairs at the reservoir and elsewhere, which has made a big difference.
“Pump run time is now where it should be,” says Flint.
The city’s accountability rate is up by 126 percent, which means that for every 100 gallons processed, the city sells 86 gallons. Beresford attributes this to pumping the product once and eliminating leaks.
In addition to big-ticket items, Flint upgraded the clarifier by making and installing baffles for $400, which reduced sediment-removing chemical use from 90 pounds/100,000 gallons to 40 pounds/200,000 gallons while reducing cost by 192 percent.
Part of that savings comes from shifting from one product to another. On a typical day, Flint says turbidity is .05, which is well below the state limit of .3.
That’s some big savings
When completed, the final bill to implement the engineer’s plan was $100,000. Some of the savings came from changed operations and some from good negotiation skills.
“You know,” says Flint, “you always ask for the good buddy price at the supply house.”
When faced with a challenge, the city did not surrender. Small-town America and local government came together to do what they do best: solve problems and take care of their own.
“We are a city but we are also a family, and we worked together,” says Flint.