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Overcoming Obstacles

Women Beg, Borrow, and Swap to Build Water System

By Jamie Knotts, On Tap Assistant Editor
Photos provided by the Tangerine Water Group

If you want to learn a thing or two about overcoming adversity, talk to the women spearheading an effort to create a public water system for their 10-home community in the desert Southwest.

In developing the Tangerine Water Group, a nonprofit organization, Susie Montgomery, Carol Millsap-Morley, and Christina Davis formed a bond that has overcome local zoning restrictions, a post 9/11 collapse of their businesses, lack of funds, and a convoluted maze of governmental agencies and funding agencies. Throughout the year-and-a-half-long process, the women learned to beg, borrow, and swap to get the items they need to build their water system. And along the way, they learned lessons that can help other “sparkplugs” who want to make a difference in their communities.

Facing Obstacles, Overcoming Them
The Tangerine Water Group is a collective of 10 people who have a few wells and live on a 40-acre land tract. Originally, one man owned the 40 acres in Pima County, Arizona, where he operated a greyhound kennel and racetrack. Zoning restrictions mandated tracts of land no less than 40 acres. Needing water for his dogs, the man drilled three wells. He later sold portions of his 40 acres to 10 others in what would come to be known as a “wildcat subdivision”—an illegal subdivision of the original land.

About the Photo: To say that Carol Millsap-Morley is passionate about her water system would be an understatement. She, along with Susie Montgomery and Christina Davis have worked tirelessly to bring a stable water supply to their homes in Arizona.

In time, the nearby town of Marana annexed the 10 properties, putting the landowners in a legal no man’s land where they no longer fell under existing zoning laws because the owners each had fewer than the required 40 acres. At the same time, Carol Millsap-Morley—the nonprofit’s secretary-treasurer—says that Marana officials kept coming to the landowners telling them they had to do certain things. “It angered all of the people here because it felt like they weren’t really paying attention to us.”

After 9/11, both Millsap-Morley, who owns a small kennel, and neighbor Christina Davis, who owns a trucking business and is the nonprofit’s vice-president, lost all of their customers. “Business just went in the toilet, so we approached Marana for permission to turn one of Davis’ old barns into an art studio, where people—especially women—could reflect on world events and express their frustrations in art,” she says.

“We asked Marana for permission, and they laughed at us,” Millsap-Morley says. “They said that we didn’t have the proper zoning, the barn needed to be condemned; we didn’t have the proper roads; and we didn’t have adequate fire protection. So we kind of looked at each other, said ‘then we’ll fix all that,’ and we’ll have our art studio.”

Residents of the subdivision also wanted to plan for the future to help both their own struggling businesses, as well as help others become established in the area.

“We believed that Marana wanted to supply us with water, and that meant that Marana was eventually going to take our wells. We had the wells in place, so in being part of their municipal water system we would have had to turn over our wells,” says Millsap-Morley. “We wanted control over our water. That’s essentially why we formed the nonprofit to upgrade our well and distribution systems so we wouldn’t have to be part of Marana’s water system. Water is gold out here, so of course there’s an issue with it.”

The women eventually overcame the problem with an agreement by Marana to allow them to have their own system. “We asked Marana when they were to bring us water if we did decide to go with their municipal system and their first answer was two to three years and we couldn’t wait that long,” she says. “Our businesses were dying. In order to increase business now, we needed fire protection, roads, and the zoning now. We decided to tackle fire protection first.”

Shortly after 9/11, and at the time they were told they needed fire protection to get the art studio off the ground, the area faced several devastating wild fires. “We found that we had no fire protection,” Millsap-Morley recalls. “So, that was another real push to get everyone involved in the project. We had to have this. We didn’t want to burn down. Right now we have fire protection with trucks hauling water, but they can’t connect to our water system to provide a steady stream of water to put out a fire. And that scared us.”

Editor’s Note: While we were putting together this issue, a wildfire consumed thousands of acres in Pima County.

Getting Help From Others
The women first set out to find funding sources to drill a well and get water flowing. “We had two small wells, but we needed a well that would afford us fire protection,” she says. While there were other wells on the owners’ properties, only two wells fed their small system’s needs. “We had to bring up the water pressure, so we needed to go with 8-inch piping instead of the 2-inch that we currently had.” Residents also needed fire hydrants to go along with the new well and distribution system.

About the Photo: A member of the Tangerine Water Group, Christina Davis.

“We got a bunch of people together to help us,” Millsap-Morley says. “We joined ASUA [Arizona Small Utilities Association] and met Neil Wittle who was able to give us a ton of links and contacts to go to for help. WIFA [Water Infrastructure Financing Agency] was a huge help.”

WIFA is the Arizona state agency that provides construction loans for water and wastewater projects. “We even got a local politician involved in the process,” she says. “Once we really got into this. and we started using contacts and calling people, we found that people were really on our side.”

As the women became more involved in the project, they found the U.S. Rural Development Administration’s (RDA) Web site while looking for loans. The women landed a $100,000 RDA grant, but as a condition of receiving it, they had to secure an additional $85,000 in cash, equipment, and donations. The money would be used to drill the well and to get the water project underway.

One-Stop Shopping Means Better Service for Arizona’s Small Systems

The old adage says that two heads are better than one, especially when their goal is to complete a project better, faster, or under budget. Working together, organizations seeking to improve drinking water services in Arizona have gone a step farther by bringing together many minds for the benefit of small communities.

The Rural Water Infrastructure Committee (RWIC) of Arizona got its start in the early 1990s as a means of pooling the skills, knowledge, and financial resources of numerous organizations that work to improve water and wastewater services in small or rural communities. With the goal of working together as a team, members of the RWIC agreed to stop competing with one another and look for more opportunities to partner strategically.

Arizona’s Rural Water Infrastructure Committee (RWIC) developed as an informal partnership, working to improve the wastewater and drinking water infrastructure in Arizona. The committee of federal, state, local, and private sector organizations meets regularly across the state to coordinate financial and technical assistance and offer advice to those coordinating water or wastewater projects.

For each proposal that goes before members of the RWIC, local project sponsors spend more than an hour discussing details. The sponsor first describes its situation and its proposed project. The committee then offers technical advice and recommends further sources of technical and financial support for the project. At the end of each meeting, the committee chair summarizes the discussion and recommends “next steps” with contact people and phone number for the project. From there, local project leaders must decide how to proceed.

The RWIC most often suggests that communities constructing wastewater treatment projects apply for funding from the Water Infrastructure Financing Authority of Arizona or the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service. To a lesser extent, other partners, including the Greater Arizona Development Authority, the Economic Development Administration, the North American Development Bank, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Arizona Department of Emergency Management also support construction projects.

WRIC members, such as the Arizona Small Utilities Association and the Rural Community Assistance Corporation, also offer technical assistance to communities throughout the project development process. In addition, the RWIC identifies financial assistance programs that are most appropriate for each proposed project. It also offers advice about how to develop a funding package that coordinates multiple funding sources.

For more information about the RWIC, contact the Arizona Water Infrastructure Finance Authority by phone at (602) 230-9770
or visit their Web site at For more information about Rural Utilities Service loans and grants, go to

Millsap-Morley, Davis, and Mont-gomery then started asking for donations from any source they could locate. “We will take parts and labor, donations, anything the public will help us with,” Davis says. “If they don’t have anything they can donate, they might donate ideas. You know, maybe they know of someone who could help us.”

“We sat in a room—Christina and I—and we brainstormed,” says Millsap-Morley. “We sat there on the phone, tenaciously called and boldly begged for supplies. That’s where we used all of our contacts that people had supplied us with. We have talked to many people throughout the U.S.”
Some of the donations they obtained included:
• $18,000 in technical assistance from WIFA,
• two 50,000-gallon water storage tanks valued at $250,000,
• a 5,000-gallon hydro-tank air compressor and other equipment from an American Indian tribe,
• $60,000 in volunteer hours, and
• $37,500 in equipment and person- hours from a local construction company.

“Every meeting we went to we handed out our cards and told them that if anybody had anything to donate or help us with we would take it,” she says. “Even if it was just a suggestion, we took it and later made that contact.

If I spent as much energy in my business as I spent on the Tangerine water project I’d be a little more wealthy. It was just something that we had to do to get the project off the ground, so we did it. Trying to get the grant money from RDA was time consuming. You have to be dedicated and be a visionary.”

At this point, the treatment plant is still in the planning stages. “We had a preliminary well and system plan drawn up, but we won’t know more about the actual system until we go to see it,” says Millsap-Morley. “It was actually donated to us. It’s about a $250,000 system that was donated by an Indian nation. That was a huge contribution. We even got the fencing donated to surround the well site due to the new laws for water systems.”

About the Photo: Susie Montgomery,a member of the Tangerine Water Group.

The trio of women got their story out to others. They found that doing so helped them gain more support for the work they were doing. An electrician saw an article about their project and came forward to donate his time in return for room and board. “We haven’t had the opportunity to use him yet, but we will as the project moves forward,” Millsap-Morley says.

Tackling the Other Issues
Once the three women got the fire protection and water system project underway, they turned to the zoning issue that hampered building their art studio. Because they were in a wildcat subdivision and technically out of compliance with the 40-acre zoning law, the property owners had to get the zoning changed.

“They gave it the fancy name ‘wildcat subdivision,’ but it’s essentially an illegal act. You know, this is the West,” she says with a laugh. “It just means that the previous owner subdivided his property illegally, not according to the county’s zoning rules.

It created a real problem for Marana when they annexed us.” The women petitioned the town for a change to multiple-use zoning, which allows them to have commercial ventures on their land and also live on the property. “That is kind of an unusual phenomenon here in Pima County and Marana,” she says. “We changed the zoning to allow one-acre splits.

We weren’t under the 40-acres rule anymore, but we were also not legally allowed to have one-acre lots. We overcame that. Now we can split our lots and have small portions legally. We can now live on our property and have a business here, too. Mixed usage is very unusual and is not wanted by many municipalities.”

The town also had issues with the roads and wanted them upgraded. “We eventually got them upgraded because we’re a non-profit,” she says. “Once we lay our 8-inch pipe, Marana is going to donate the material to lay the roads for us.”

Use the Resources Available
The three women worked closely together to secure the items they needed for their water system. Without the time spent phoning people for help, the project might not have gotten off the ground. They’ve learned a lot throughout the process, and they can offer others advice for tackling a similar project.

“Use the resources you can find to start talking to people because that’s where they’ll get the greatest amount of help,” Millsap-Morley says. “Attend meetings to make contacts and network with others because that is truly what we did to get to where we are. We’re only halfway there, but we’ve come a long way.”

About the Photo: Even the storage tank was donated to the Tangerine Water Group. While not yet in service, the tank—one of many donated items to the project—will soon serve the system's 10 customers.

The women from Tangerine also sought help from the Rural Water Infrastructure Committee (RWIC) of Arizona by presenting their project to the committee. (See sidebar story on page 21 about the RWIC.)

“We were missing roughly $80,000 for the RDA grant, so we thought we’d walk away after the meeting with $80,000,” Millsap-Morley laughs. “We thought they’d say ‘Oh you guys are great, so here’s the money.’ But they gave us more contacts, which was helpful. We were a little disappointed, but we were very naïve in that we thought we would go before WRIC, and they were going to make this happen. What doesn’t destroy you makes you stronger. If you have to work for it, it’s so much more meaningful to you.

“I wish there had been a pamphlet that someone could have given us that had all of the contacts, groups, and organizations that you’re going to need to get to know,” she says. “We didn’t have that, so we kind of learned the hard way. If there was a hard way and easy way, we always had to go the hard way. For months we kept chasing funding that was elusive.”

While the project is still in the works, these three women know that it will be completed soon. The final estimate has the water project costing approximately $500,000, including loans, grants, and the many donated items. Once the new 8-inch pipe goes in, they can work on upgrading their road. When that’s done, they’ll turn their attention to the thing that started them on their journey—that art studio.

To learn more about the Tangerine Water Group, contact Carol Millsap-Morley by phone at (520) 682-0646 or send an email to

About the Author: This is Writer-Editor Jamie Knotts' last issue with the National Drinking Water Clearinghouse. He begins a new career this fall teaching special needs children in a public school.

States with One-Stop Shopping Help for Water Projects

New Mexico,
New York,
West Virginia,