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UTEP students help install a rainwater harvesting system at a home near Presidio, Texas. Along with honing their technical skills, the students learned about cooperation and project coordination. Photo courtesy of Celeste Gomez.

Miners Build Rainwater Harvesting System in Colonia

Desire, destiny and determination were part of a recent effort by University of Texas at El Paso students who designed and constructed a demonstration rainwater harvesting system for an elderly couple who live in a colonia outside of Presidio, Texas.

Eight UTEP students, mostly from the College of Engineering, under the supervision of the University’s Center for Environmental Resource Management (CERM), made the four-hour trek to Las Pampas to install the system that was built to collect 2,200 gallons of water.

Residents of this colonia – a community along the U.S.-Mexico border that lacks basic infrastructure, such as paved roads and connections to municipal utilities – are not hooked up to the Presidio water service. They must haul in water up to several times per week for indoor and outdoor use.

The UTEP team hoped this effort, called the Water Matters project, would show other Las Pampas residents how they could cut back on the cost, time and effort tied to hauling water.

The students worked for about 12 hours to drill, cut and assemble the system’s PVC pipes and gutters that ultimately connected to eight 275-gallon black plastic tanks.

“The students learned a lot, and that’s an important part of education,” said Bill Hargrove, Ph.D., CERM director and the driving force behind the project.”They learned technical aspects, but maybe even more important was that they learned some soft skills such as how to work together and how to get organized. These are skills that professionals, especially engineers, use every day.”

Some rain showers in May and early June tested the system and the homeowners reported that it worked fairly well. There was some minor leakage at a joint, but the homeowner was able to repair it. An estimated 370 gallons of rainwater was collected from the collective storms despite the leak.

The project’s story really began during the summer of 2015 when CERM started a grant-funded water assessment survey for Presidio, a rural community about 250 miles southeast of El Paso. The study, which included Las Pampas, was led by Hargrove and lasted about 18 months. After he submitted the report to state and city officials, residents, who had developed close ties with his team, asked him if they would be getting water service.

The CERM director began to think about low-cost options to help the Las Pampas residents. A colleague’s mention of rainwater harvesting got him thinking about that as a possible solution. He took the idea to Jesus M. Placencia, an engineer in training and CERM graduate research assistant who studied the topic as a graduate student in 2016. The UTEP alumnus earned his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering in 2015, and is expected to complete his master’s in civil and environmental engineering in fall 2017.

Placencia designed a system that took advantage of the home’s sloped 2,252-square-foot metal roof. He considered the area’s highest monthly rainfall in July and August of about two inches per month. The numbers cruncher figured the system should harvest 2,200 gallons that could be used to irrigate the property’s 26 trees and assorted bushes and plants.

CERM had a plan and had allocated $1,000 for supplies, but it needed more help and it was about to get plenty of it.

El Paso-based Coca-Cola Enterprises contacted CERM to see if it wanted 15 275-gallon jugs that are used to carry the soda’s syrup. Similar tanks cost about $600 each.

Owners of a Las Pampas trucking company, who got to know Hargrove during the CERM community water survey, offered to transport the tanks for a nominal fee.

Miguel Fraga, a senior engineering leadership major who leads a student group that wants to put its knowledge and expertise to use in the community, asked Hargrove if CERM had a project it could support.

“Everyone did a pretty good job,” said Fraga, who added that this was the first time some of them had used power tools. “We’re thankful to CERM. Everyone is looking forward to the next project.”

Among those who were impressed by the project was Presidio Mayor John Ferguson, who stopped by the job site. He has known Hargrove for several years because of CERM’s water research. He said the project inspired him to propose a grant to his city council that would pay for the extension of city water service to the colonia.

“(Rainwater harvesting) was a tremendous idea,” Ferguson said. He thought it was a positive step that could alleviate some of the problem. He also lauded the students for their determination.

Hargrove said there are tentative plans to return to Las Pampas during the fall 2017 semester to assemble a similar system on a larger colonia property.

Author:  Daniel Perez – UTEP Communications

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