New Community Engineering Corps Will Assist Underserved Communities in the U.S.

February 24, 2014
The Black Mesa Water and Sanitation Project in Black Mesa, Arizona, is one of the pilot projects conducted as part of the Community Engineering Corps initiative.

For the past 20 years, the rising waters from Devil’s Lake Basin have caused flooding and environmental and economic impacts on the 245,000-acre Spirit Lake community, home to the Spirit Lake Tribe reservation. The loss of several hundred farms and prime agricultural real estate and extensive damage to road, sewage, and power infrastructure led the state to declare the 78,000-acre Spirit Lake Tribe reservation in Benson County, North Dakota, a disaster area in April 2013.

The Tokio Pantry, which has served as a food distribution and community center for the entire Spirit Lake Nation, was forced to shut down and be demolished because of mold issues from flooding and an insufficient septic system. FEMA has been working with the tribal community to implement an emergency plan, but that is not enough.

 “There is currently a lot being done in terms of effort but much more needs to be done,” says Frank Black Cloud, renewable resource manager at Spirit Lake Nation. “For a long time we have felt abandoned by both the State and the federal government; 20 years of continuous flooding can break a community down. That type of flooding is like a slow cancer, it eats away at your heart, your soul, and your very reason for living. The Spirit Lake Tribe was a special place before this disaster and that has not changed.”

Coming to the rescue of the Spirit Lake Tribe with plans to construct a new community center later this year – which will play a key role in restoring their community – is the Community Engineering Corps (CE Corps). A partnership between ASCE, the American Water Works Association (AWWA), and Engineers Without Borders–USA (EWB), the CE Corps will help underserved communities in the U.S., such as the Spirit Lake Tribe, by providing volunteers, resources, and engineering expertise. The Spirit Tribe Community Center is one of the first 5 pilot CE Corps projects, and was originally initiated by the EWB Central Houston Professional Chapter in 2013.

 “With EWB and now the Community Engineering Corps’ help, we now have hope for a better future,” says Black Cloud. “Working with EWB in Houston has been a wonderful experience for the tribe; they brought [engineering] expertise that we need as a community to help us become sustainable and to give this ever-weakening community some help.”

Shared Vision of Community Service

CECcolor“ASCE has been partnering with EWB-USA for over 5 years now,” said ASCE President Randall “Randy” S. Over, P.E., F.ASCE. “Supporting them financially as well as providing support services to their operations. And we believe this domestic program – the Community Engineering Corps – is really going to engage our members. And, in particular, [through] helping infrastructure right here in the U.S. in underserved communities. We have been looking for a way to do that.

“ASCE is extremely excited for this opportunity to further strengthen our members’ engagement in public service along with our partners EWB-USA and AWWA. Together we have this shared vision of community service and we are really looking forward to this.”

“The Community Engineering Corps is an alliance between ASCE, AWWA, and EWB-USA that does pro bono engineering services to communities in need here in the Under States,” says Peter Waugh, P.E., M.ASCE, EWB-USA’s domestic program director. “EWB-USA has been working overseas for about a dozen years but here at home we had all sorts of underserved communities that needed technical assistance and didn’t have the financial resources to access that.

 “So we are going to work collaboratively with communities to design solutions to problems that the communities themselves have identified. And we work only with communities that have tried to access engineering services in a traditional manner but just did not have the financial resources to do that.”

 Other Pilot Projects

Aside from the Spirit Lake Tribe Community Center, Waugh says the other 4 pilot projects are these:

  • D-Q University Infrastructure Assessment in Davis, California, insinuated by the EWB-USA University of California, Davis Student Chapter, will conduct an assessment of the university’s building facilities and water system, which presently cannot meet the community’s needs.
  • Black Mesa Water and Sanitation Project in Black Mesa, Arizona, developed by the EWB-USA Georgia Institute of Technology Student Chapter, will provide their community with a better water supply, greener technology, and reduce their energy usage.
  • Friends of Halawa Xeriscape Garden, in Honolulu, Hawaii, in coordination with the EWB-USA Honolulu Professional Chapter, will safely expand the garden so both residents of the City and County as well as visitors will benefit from the education programs and resources.
  • Tulane City Center Hollygrove Greenline Project in Hollygrove, Louisiana, organized by the EWB-USA New Orleans Professional Chapter, will provide the community with a linear park facility that will include storm-water retention areas and increased space for agriculture, and provide new uses for this underutilized green strip.   

 “These are the projects that convinced us that [CE Corps] is indeed a viable project and we should go to full scale,” says Waugh.

Building on the Principal of Community-Centered Design and Sustainability

 Similar to how EWB-USA presently operates with their international projects, an application for a CE Corps project will come from a community group or a nonprofit organization that represents a community. The application will include information about the program eligibility requirements and the criteria against which the application will be judged. The review of the application will take approximately 4 to 6 weeks. If the application is approved, CE Corps will identify a section of ASCE or AWWA, or a chapter of EWB-USA, that is best suited to work on the project. Next, the Corps will connect the community with the volunteer engineers who will be working on the project.

“We are going to build upon the principles of community-centered design and sustainability that the three organizations have been working on for a number years,” notes Waugh. “With the technical expertise available at ASCE and AWWA and the project focus of EWB-USA, we really feel like these are the right three organizations to bring this forward.”

“Thanks to EWB-USA and the CE Corps program, and our unshakable community spirit and resolve to build back up [even] better in the future, [it] will continue to serve us well as we move forward with the implementation of [the construction of the new community center],” concluded Black Cloud. “At the heart of the tribe’s recovery plan is a simple guiding principle: keep the things that have always made your community a great place to live or work or own a business, and then suggest ways to build upon the strengths of the community in order to make a more prosperous, appealing, and livable life.”

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  • I am intersted in finding out more about this group. Is it possible to forward my email address to this group. I live in North Dakota and am just learning about this opportunity to serve. Fascinating.

  • Related to the new Community Engineering Corps…..
    …I know that service learning projects are sometimes employed as senior design projects in many CE Departments nationally, but I want to point out ONE that our students are completing this semester. A team of 4 senior CE students (Univ. of South Alabama) and assisted by a team of 4 HS students (Davidson HS, Mobile, AL) along with a practicing engineer are now designing (and will soon construct) an onsite wastewater treatment/disposal system for a group of 7 families in a rural/economically depressed area of Alabama. Soils in this area clay and thus do not easily accept water via conventional onsite wastewater systems (septic tanks and drain fields). The student team is recommending low-cost water-reduction strategies for the homes and designing a simple, but effective “wastewater treatment wetland” system (that will achieve secondary treatment standards) for implementation. Students and other professionals (engineer, installers, Health Dept personnel, etc.) will all assist with obtaining material donations and construction. (It’s the materials donation that is most difficult to obtain.)

    Sounds to me like exactly what was envisioned with the Community Engineering Corps.

    Kevin White
    Professor and Chair
    Department of Civil Engineering
    University of South Alabama

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