A proposed regional water project to provide water to all of Wyoming County and a large portion of McDowell County has been thrown a life raft, according to Sen. Richard Browning, D-Wyoming.

In May, officials were told $98 million in federal stimulus money they hoped to use for the project had gone to other locations. Browning vowed to take the project directly to the White House and he did exactly that, communicating with the White House liaison to county governments.

As a result, Browning, along with U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall, a representative of U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd’s office, and several others involved in the project discussed the merits of the project via conference call with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C. June 18.

He learned there is still some of the unprecedented $6 billion in USDA Rural Development money available.

Rahall also met with the secretary of the USDA last week to discuss the project, Browning noted.

“I have a real good feeling now,” Browning said after the phone call.

Because of Rahall’s involvement, along with that of Byrd’s office, he believes the USDA office actually listened.

“Rahall and Byrd’s office provided the oomph,” he emphasized.

Only 93 percent of the $6 billion has been appropriated, Browning said he was told during the conference call, and some of that will come back to the USDA because projects aren’t ready to move forward, or for other reasons.

The USDA officials now recommend the regional water project be completed in phases, with the first phase to include the construction of the water plant and providing water to the Hanover area.

“That’s fine; if we can’t have the whole apple, then I’ll take a bite of the apple,” Browning said.

However, Browning emphasized, it is crucial the water plant be built with the capacity to provide water to the entire target area for the next 40 to 50 years.

Additionally, he said, the intake lines must be built to those same capacity specifications as well as the water lines leaving the plant.

“I’m very encouraged by the phone call,” Browning said.

Bobby Lewis, state director of the USDA, was to meet with the regional team working on the project last week, Browning said.

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The regional project has been in the works for three years. By tying local systems and public service districts (PSD) together, individual systems can “buy or borrow water” when they need it, Browning explained.

Browning said the plan is intended to provide a primary source — as well as a backup source — for those systems in need of water for any reason.

While the initial costs for a state-of-the-art water treatment plant to serve the regional area will be substantial, savings would come by tying systems together, by “putting pipe in the ground” rather than constructing numerous new plants, which can cost in the millions of dollars, across the region, officials noted.

R.D. Bailey Lake could provide a reliable source and would be very cost effective, according to officials. Preliminary projections indicate the lake could provide up to 10 million gallons of water a day without any significant impact to the lake pool.

The Hanover area will encompass 1,209 users. Oceana will provide another 1,700, then Ravencliff-McGraws-Saulsville Public Service District will add 1,300. The Pineville system will add 1,765 customers, with the Eastern Wyoming Public Service District adding about 1,600.

McDowell County users will total more than 3,000, with the new federal prison, near Welch, doubling the city’s daily water consumption once it opens later this year.

This project is going to take water to places that had never had potable water before, Browning emphasized.

There is already $35 million in Abandoned Mine Land monies committed to the project, which is now estimated to cost $150 million.

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The reasons for a regional water project with a reliable, plentiful source are many.

Underground water sources are notoriously unreliable and can also be unhealthy, Browning noted, especially with the increase in mining and drilling which can sink wells.

Unhealthy levels of sodium and barium have contaminated water sources within the area, officials said. Treatment plants have to be specifically constructed to remove particular contaminants, according to officials.

The June 12-13 flood event, the second disaster in the same area in 13 months, contaminated the water wells in the Hanover area.

“They have no water there now,” Browning said.

A 2007 drought that nearly resulted in Oceana’s water source drying up also sent up a red flag, bringing to light the need for a backup source for established water systems.

Operating costs for smaller municipalities and water systems are creating budget shortfalls.

Browning noted the regional project may be a “way out” for the smaller towns with decreasing populations that are forced to subsidize water systems and other utilities.

A long term study of the region following the July 8, 2001 flooding projected these smaller municipalities would cease to exist in the coming years due to the population declines and escalating operations costs.

Additionally, with increased government regulations, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find and keep a certified water treatment plant operator.

“I am an eternal optimist,” Browning said, “and I’m optimistic about this project.”

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