Many residents in Sneedville’s (TN) Cedar Grove community lack access to clean water in their homes. The community relies on a local mountain spring to meet their daily needs.

To access the natural spring’s water, residents created, and continue to maintain, a plastic piping system that conveys water down the mountain to a public access point, located over a quarter of a mile away. The water flows through aboveground piping situated in creek beds, as well as over rocky terrain. The pipe carries the water into a large, concrete basin located beside Cedar Grove Baptist Church. Here, community members can access water through a connected hose.

While this piping system provides local residents with one of life’s most precious necessities, it remains problematic.

The primary concern with this water source is the threat of bacteria. The dangers of these contaminants are particularly harmful for the community’s newborns and the elderly.

A local United Methodist initiative, the Jubilee Project, has worked to address the many issues that affect the water quality and its delivery system for residents in Cedar Grove. A mutual contact connected the Jubilee Project to Dr. Greg Harrell, director of Milligan’s engineering programs.

The water project in Sneedville began modestly through junior Bo Pless’ desire to research engineering and water systems.

“I’ve always been interested in engineering’s connection to water, and at Milligan, I have the ability to connect my academic interests to service opportunities,” said Pless. “In discussing research options, Professor Harrell connected me to the Jubilee Project’s work.”

Once Milligan engineering connected with the Jubilee Project, the student research team quickly grew. Now, over a year into the project, five students and four faculty are involved. The student research team consists of rising junior Nathan Baker, of the United Kingdom; rising junior Josh Clemens, of Blountville; rising senior Zula Coley, of Johnson City; rising senior Doc Maines, of Bluff City; and rising senior Bo Pless, of Elizabethton. In addition to Harrell, other faculty involved include Dr. Jeff Giesey, Dr. Landon Holbrook, and Dr. Hongyou Lu.

“I wanted to work on a research project that focused on missions,” said Maines. “Bo was pursuing this project and I jumped at the opportunity to work with him. I expected to see issues about access to water on mission trips abroad; I didn’t realize similar issues are facing communities near us.”

The group has taken several trips to Cedar Grove to assess the current system, analyze the problems, and determine the best solutions. They meet weekly to discuss the different tasks they are working on in their research and in the lab.

Upon traveling to Sneedville, the group has returned with several water samples to test. Their tests revealed that Cedar Grove’s water contained bacteria, and the team worked to identify the sources of the bacteria in the water, as well as find methods to reduce contamination.

“To treat the water, we created a plan to place filters within the storage basin that will help eliminate bacteria and germs,” explained Pless. “UV light effectively eradicates bacteria; however, the water has to be clear for this to work.”

“Bacteria like to hide,” chimed in junior Clemens. “If there are any dirt particles, the bacteria can hide and the UV light is not as effective. We decided to insert two separate particle filters into the basin to ensure that the water is clear.”

The students acknowledge that while they didn’t build the filtration system parts, they researched and tested the filters to ensure that their installation works effectively for the people of Cedar Grove.

“This project applies what we are learning to a real issue in the world,” said Baker. “Knowing that our research and work impacts people’s lives is why I chose Milligan’s engineering program.”