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Hillsboro Utility Challenges Highlighted As USAID Case Study

© Leesburg Today - 10/26/2015

Hillsboro became a training site for more than two dozen USAID trainees and agency officials who were in town last week to learn about its efforts to build water and wastewater systems for its approximately 100 residents.

The town ranks as the state's second smallest town and its efforts to upgrade its utility systems were recommended as a training model for locally hired employees, who came from United States Agency for International Development missions all over the world. Challenges facing the town are similar to those the workers deal with in their own localities.

After a trek up the Short Hill to visit the town's water sources-the Hill Tom spring with its springhouse/treatment facility, and a low-yield town well, the team gathered at the Old Stone School for a panel discussion with members of the town council and various state and county government leaders.

After years of work with state and the county agencies, the town is preparing for the construction of a new well and water treatment plant, a wastewater treatment plant and traffic-calming measures to Rt. 9.

Mayor Roger Vance briefed his audience on the history of the town's development of a rudimentary drinking water system. From its earliest days in the 1740s, the town has relied on water from the Hill Tom spring. In the 20th century, the Hillsboro Water Company formed and laid a pipe into town to distribute the water. Today, there are 32 water customers, and eight properties served by private on-site wells.

For about a century, the system worked satisfactorily, Vance said. But in the 1950s, increasing modernization began posing problems. The gravity-fed spring remained the town's only water source until about a decade ago. A storage tank was built in the late 1980s, and some chlorine treatment was added, but, increasingly, the town fell out of compliance with state drinking water regulations.

Finally, in a consent order with the state, ""we agreed to get off the spring,"" Vance said, noting that water source was becoming more and more unreliable. A filtration system proved too expensive, so the council turned to the development of a community well. The first well was dry; the second had only a poor to moderate yield and the next two wells were also dry.

With county financing assistance, the town finally found a reliable water source-a well yielding 25 gallons per minute. How to bring it online was the next issue. Working with county and state health departments, the town worked raise $1.7 million for the project. The Virginia Department of Health gave a $480,000 grant.

Obstacle followed obstacle. While the town was looking at funding, the Virginia Resources Authority declined to issue bonds for the project. That led to an appeal to the Board of Supervisors, which stepped up with a grant of $1.1 million, leaving around $200,000 still to finance.

""Next year, we hope we can start construction [on the well] to solve a 100-year-old problem,"" Vance said.

The town also has a $20 million traffic-calming project approved, but not funded. A grant from the county is intended to allow the town to install sewer pipes at the same time the road work is done.

On the plus side, Vance said, the town is in the middle of the burgeoning wine region and benefiting from the growth of tourism. ""We have great economic potential to be a hub for the region, but everything has to come together.""

Bob Edelman, the district engineer for the state's Office of Drinking Water, noted that when he reviewed the files on Hillsboro going back to 1968 he found violation after violation, with repeated requests from the state for improvements and compliance, starting in the early 1970s when national and state regulations were coming into play.

Edelman drew laughs from the USAID trainees when he cited a 1975 letter from the health department asking the town to stop chlorinating its water before collecting bacterial surveys. ""They were cheating,"" he said. In the late 1970s, the Town Council basically took the position, ""don't tell us what to do, leave us alone, Richmond,"" according to Edelman.

It took years of non-compliance notices and formal finding in 2000 that the Hill Tom spring was under the direct influence of groundwater before the town began to tackle its drinking water problems. The town hired a consultant when its filtration plan was not approved, ""and it's been on boiled water ever since,"" Edelman said.

He also noted the town's challenges. It has a small population and with no water utility or department. The utility system is run by volunteers, including Vance and Councilwoman Amy Marasco Newton, an environmentalist who heads the nonprofit Nature Generation.

Comments by the trainees were positive about what they had learned. They stressed the importance of environmental stewardship and noted the similarity of problems faced by the town to those in their own communities.

As Loudoun Water's Tom Lipinski put it, ""The community has to want it-that's important.""

After leaving Hillsboro, the trainees visited the Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant in Washington, DC-the largest such facility in the world.

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