Implementing the Clean Water Act: A family legacy

In reflecting on the Clean Water Act’s 40th anniversary this fall I wrote a number of columns about life before the Act, and why we should appreciate and continue to defend it today. In the course of doing this I enjoyed asking people what they remembered about our nation’s rivers before the Clean Water Act.  This triggered my uncle, Richard Harris of Charleston WV, to write me an email about the role that my grandfather (his father) played in bringing sewage treatment to the Elk River, upstream from where it enters the Kanawha River at Charleston.

While he writes about one particular river’s clean-up, he illustrates the larger point that we sometimes forget.  Yes, the Act had to be signed, and funding had to be allocated, but all across this nation individuals who cared about their communities worked to create sanitary commissions and districts.  We also forget that engineers had to be trained, new disciplines created, new companies to do the work had to be launched, new fields of law forged.  This was work, but clean water was also an economic opportunity for those who had the vision.

As you read the words of my uncle, presented in a largely unedited format, think not just about the one river in West Virginia, but about the thousands and thousands of similarly passionate individuals, many of whom were driven not just by civic interest but also by a spirit of entreprenuership, all across this nation who have worked (and continue to work) to bring our rivers back to us. Here is his story about the creation of the Elk Pinch Public Service District:

In the late 1960s my father, Evan L. Harris, Jr., and some other property owners were talking about lack of progress in developing properties in the area [of the Elk River]. It became quite apparent that a sewerage system was needed but discussions with the City of Charleston Sanitary Board indicated they were not in a position to provide service beyond the city boundaries. A committee was formed with Daddy representing the lower Elk River area, Ed Hafer representing the upper boundaries, and Cletus Morris representing the area across Elk River towards Pinch and that developing area.

After their first organizational meeting Daddy talked to Harry Gidley who had helped found the engineering firm of Kelley, Gidley Staub. Harry Gidley and my father were friends from WVU days and were social friends for many years after graduating [1932?]. Harry and his wife Katherine and Mother and Daddy played bridge every Saturday night alternating locations between their houses, Mother and Daddy on Knollwood and Harry and Katherine in Kanawha City. Being a social evening there was a lot of conversation about a myriad of topics. One subject Daddy and Harry talked about was convincing Harry to go into business for himself. Daddy kept telling him he would never make any money working for someone else, that he needed to start a business that would profit from his knowledge.

Through his networking and professional acquaintances Harry Gidley teamed up with engineers Bill Kelley and Bill Staub to form Kelly, Gidley and Staub to offer design services to rural communities for the design and construction of sewage collection and treatment facilities. The firm expanded with the addition of Tom Blair who had been City Manager of Radford, Virginia, was a Charleston native, an engineer, and was a Virginia Tech graduate. In need of additional expertise in structural engineering that they had to outsource, they took in Bob Wolfe who had been the Lead Engineer for West Virginia Steel Corporation, and a very highly respected structural engineer, also from Virginia Tech. This brought the organization to be known as Kelley, Gidley, Staub, Blair and Wolfe. With their collective expertise their relationship with the Elk Pinch Public Service District flourished and much progress was made.

By the mid 1970s, Daddy had retired and he and Mother began spending time away traveling and spending several winter months in Florida. All the while Daddy attended monthly meetings when in town or kept in close touch with Ed Hafer and Cletus Morris to keep the project on the front burner and at the same time advancing toward reality.

By the [late 1980’s] ground breaking had been scheduled for, I believe, March so construction could begin early in the season. At the time Mother and Daddy were in residence in Florida. Daddy flew up from Florida to attend the official ground breaking ceremony and immediately following the ceremony tendered his resignation from the Commission.

For over twenty years he volunteered his time as a commissioner representing the land owners of the properties along the Elk River and its contributing tributaries in an effort to clean up the waters of the Elk River and bring the community in compliance with the Clean Water Act of the United States of America.

I am including these writings in my Ramblings as I was experiencing the actions of my father first hand and truly respected and appreciated what he was doing. Being a life long resident and recreational user of the Elk River made me doubly appreciative of his efforts.

I wish my grandfather were here today to tell me the stories himself, but it brings a smile to my face to know that I apparently come to my passion for clean water somewhat naturally.  It’s in my blood, I guess you could say.

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