SWEETWATER COUNTY — Most people don’t have to wonder if anything will come out when they turn on the tap, especially here in Wyoming.
Water is one of those things that people tend to take for granted — unless it’s not easily accessible.
For the past three years, Rock Springs native Edison Elder has been part of a project working to help people in a small Guatemalan village who have struggled for years from the lack of a dependable water supply.
Two other college students from Sweetwater County joined him on a journey to that village early in 2019 to determine whether a newly designed and implemented system had been successful. Amanda Harris, Tony Lew and Elder flew to the Central American country as part of the University of Wyoming Chapter of Engineers Without Borders USA.
When Elder participated in an assessment trip to the rural town of Comunidad Maya de Nuevo de Enero in Patulul, Guatemala, in January of 2017, about half of the community members had been living without a consistent and reliable water supply for 10 years.
Although homes there had a system complete with pipes and taps, water would only come out of many of the taps in the middle of the night. Families had to either leave the taps open all night in hopes of receiving water for the following day, or else women would get up at 2 a.m. to fill containers.
Supply wasn’t the issue. Rain, ground water and streams flowed into basins called spring boxes that fed into sedimentation tanks. The spring boxes would overflow, but there wasn’t enough pressure in the system to deliver that water to the community. It had originally been built by the Guatemalan government in 2002 after peace accords in the country, according to Harris. Community members added to it in 2007 after they started having water shortage problems. The additions proved less than effective, so the community reached out to Engineers Without Borders, hoping for a well-engineered and more reliable system.
ENGINEERING A SOLUTION
The January 2017 assessment in Guatemala that Elder participated in was designed to gather information, establish relationships with community members and begin the process of designing and implementing a better system.
“We had to figure out what we were dealing with before we could fix it,” Elder said.
Team members gathered a great deal of data and brought it back with them to the U.S. The information was analyzed and used to begin planning a better system. Students in a UW design class did much of the primary design work in the spring of 2018, Elder said.
Actual engineers helped with design fixes and improvements. One of the difficulties experienced during that phase was the fact that there was no access to the water system they were trying to fix when they realized needed information was missing.
Despite obstacles, a new design was completed and the EWB group started planning an implementation trip for the fall of 2018 to build the new system in the Guatemalan community. Presleigh Hayashida, another UW student from Sweetwater County, was a key member of the team who designed the system improvements but was unable to go on the monitoring trip because she had graduated.
Logistics required for an implementation trip are extensive and complicated, Harris said. There was just not enough time for the UW chapter of engineering students to figure everything out, so the trip had to be canceled.
Elder felt somewhat discouraged. He had dedicated considerable time and effort to the project and knew that a deadline was looming. After five years, if a project is not successful, it is taken away and given to another chapter, he said.
A new plan was devised.
Money and instructions would be provided to members of the community they were trying to help in hopes that they could complete the water system improvements on their own.
Meanwhile, students in the UW chapter of EWB made plans for one more expedition to Comunidad Maya de Nuevo de Enero — the monitoring trip to find out once and for all if the project had been a success. There was no way to know beforehand. Team members would have to wait until their arrival in the rural Guatemalan town.
On January 12, 2019, UW team members got on an airplane and left the frigid cold of a Wyoming winter. Upon disembarking in Central America, they experienced temperatures in the 80s and 90s, along with 90% humidity and a thick, fog-like substance hovering in the atmosphere. Air quality is especially poor in Guatemala during January and February due to the sugar cane industry there, Elder said. Crops are burned down to congeal the sap.
The 15-member team, including a translator, was transported to the town. Upon their arrival, community leaders took them from one tap to another. As each was opened, an abundant flow of water issued forth without exception. Every tap had water and pressure at all times during the day.
System improvements had been completed just three days before.
“To witness the success firsthand was an amazing experience,” Elder said.
One of the elderly women they came in contact with spoke a Mayan dialect. Her words had to be translated from Mayan to Spanish, then Spanish to English. Her great-grandchildren were there as well, and she was trying to make them understand how important it is to have water access at all times. She kept thanking team members over and over.
People now had two reasons to celebrate: the successful water project as well as the Jan. 9 anniversary of the community's founding. As part of the festivities, people gathered at the tank and spring boxes for blessing ceremonies and to express appreciation to all those involved with restoring the water system.
Elder said working on the hydraulic project for the Guatemalan people was the experience that had the most impact on him as an engineering student.
“Coordinating a project like this taught me valuable lessons that I couldn’t have learned otherwise,” he said.
Harris became involved with the project after the 2017 assessment trip. She was familiar with every aspect of the project, but said it still felt more like a story than reality until she actually journeyed to the country, met the people affected, and saw the water spurting out of the taps.