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WEB rural water project marks 30 years

ABERDEEN (AP) -- Thirty years ago, dignitaries gathered in the northern South Dakota town of Selby to launch the largest rural water project in the nation and the first one funded primarily with federal funds.

A young congressman named Tom Daschle was there at the ground-breaking ceremony, as were senators Larry Pressler and Jim Abdnor, Gov. Bill Janklow, federal officials and others.

WEB Water came about after legislation was passed to compensate South Dakota for land that was lost when the Oahe Dam was built. The goal was to take water from the Missouri River, treat it and pipe it to farms and small towns in north-central South Dakota.

The need was great.

"I remember before WEB Water came to Spink County, people didn't want to drink the water," said Ed Fischbach, a former WEB Water board chairman. "You would go into a restaurant, and you wouldn't want to drink the coffee."

The water in much of the district came from artesian wells. It was high in salts and minerals.

"It would corrode pipes, wear out washing machines and plumbing," Fischbach said. "And the water didn't taste good."

WEB, which stands for Walworth, Edmunds and Brown counties, started out serving six counties and quickly expanded. Today it serves 17 counties -- 14 in South Dakota and three in North Dakota.

The nonprofit corporation has 6,800 miles of pipe in a 5,500-square-mile area. There are about 8,000 customers.

"It was one of the greatest things to ever happen to this area," Fischbach said. "It really had an effect on economic development. We wouldn't have seen the emergence of the ethanol industry in this area if it weren't for WEB Water."

Ethanol plants are big water users and need water lower in mineral contents that won't create a build-up inside pipes. Five ethanol plants use WEB Water, as well as 105 small towns or bulk users such as large cattle operations.

Fischbach, who raises cattle northeast of Mellette, said cattle do much better on WEB water than artesian water.

"They are healthier and gain weight better," he said. "Cattle will walk out of a dugout when it is 100 degrees to get WEB water. They would never do that for other water. It is amazing to see."

While the Selby ground-breaking event in 1982 launched the project, it took several years to complete the feasibility study and lay pipe.

Keith Vojta, who farmed southwest of Selby, was the first person to receive water in May 1986.

Vojta, who now lives in Mobridge, said WEB water was much more convenient than pumping water from his well.

"It was a neat deal," he said. "We still had a well for the stock, and the house got piped-in water."

His well water tasted good, but WEB Water offered him reliability, he said. It was always there, and he didn't have to worry about the pipes from his well freezing..

Dean Perry, who works in the WEB Water Aberdeen office, has been with the firm longer than any other employee. He started in 1984 as a pipe inspector. He also worked on securing easements from landowners.

"I was excited because I could envision seeing it becoming a utility someday," he said.

Farmers and rural residents started out by paying a $35 good intention fee to join, according to a history written by the company. Once the pipe was laid, they would pay a $250 hook-up fee.

Becoming a rural WEB Water user today costs much more. The price ranges from about $4,500 for a simple hook-up to $40,000 to $50,000 if miles of pipe need to be installed to reach the home, said Steve Harper, WEB Water general manager.

When the project first started many farmers were skeptical that water lines would reach everybody, Perry said. After they could see progress and their neighbors coming online they became more excited, he said.

WEB Water expanded its customer base rapidly from 1986 to 1988 and has continued steady growth since then, he said.

Glenn Overby, a retired farmer who helped sign up users when pipelines reached Spink County, said WEB Water has been a benefit to everyone in the area.

"It started as a grassroots effort," he said. "Many people really wanted it. It was from the bottom up, not top down."