Providing Clean Water for Ten Years

Posted June 15, 2021

For the past ten years, Water for Woodlands, a ministry of the White Oak Springs Presbyterian Church, has been providing clean drinking water for the Butler County residents of The Woodlands in Connoquenessing Township. Every Monday volunteers gather at a side entrance to the church near the town of Connoquenessing to distribute water to families whose well water has been contaminated by hydraulic fracturing. Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” is a drilling technology used for extracting natural gas from deep underground.

The Woodlands is a small unincorporated community within the boundaries of Connoquenessing Township in Butler County. It was originally established about forty years ago as a hunting and fishing retreat for wealthy people from Allegheny County. The original developers went bankrupt and the property was marked off in parcels to be sold at sheriff’s sale. Those who purchased property were, for the most part, people who would be classified as the “working poor.” All was well with the relatively close-knit community until western Pennsylvania became prime territory for fracking.

Not long after the fracking began, residents began seeing and tasting differences in their well water. The water smelled and changed color—sometimes the color of tea, sometimes the color of used motor oil. The water coming from their spigots irritated skin and, thus became unusable for showering, cooking, or drinking. 

Marcellus Outreach Butler, an anti-fracking environmental group, was holding a rally outside the Rex Energy offices in Butler. M.O.B. officials asked anyone who attended to bring bottled water for The Woodlands. They ended up with enough water to fill four pick-up trucks. A friend called then pastor, Rev. Lee Dreyer and asked if the water could be stored at White Oaks Springs Church for the weekend. “Of course…” was his answer. Ten years later, the church is still storing water…and distributing it to the residents.

In the early days of what is now known as Water for Woodlands, there were eleven families who signed up to receive water. Water was purchased off the shelf at Giant Eagle and was delivered to the residents’ homes. As the numbers grew and as winter approached, it became evident that even four-wheel drive vehicles would have difficulties on the dirt roads of The Woodlands. So a water bank was established at White Oak Springs Church. Every Monday, Woodlands residents come to the church and receive twenty gallon jugs of water per family per week. Distribution times alternate between morning and evening. Neighbors help out with those who can’t be there and those with disabilities.

Volunteers would go to Giant Eagle, get water off the shelf, fill the trunks of their cars, and haul it back to the church. As numbers grew—they now serve approximately thirty families—that soon became an impossible situation. So an agreement was made with Crystal Springs, a nationwide water company with a history of social action. An order is called in every Tuesday and the water is delivered to the church on Thursday. The church receives 300-400 gallons a week from Crystal Springs.

Water for Woodlands functions because of monetary contributions, grants, etc. Most of the contributions come from churches, civic organizations, and individuals. All contributions go to the purchase of water. Interestingly, Water for Woodlands has received a good bit of media attention over the years. All the Pittsburgh television news stations have covered this story, as well as newspapers in Pittsburgh; Harrisburg; Philadelphia; Baltimore, Maryland; Boston, Massachusetts and Buffalo, New York. Whenever a story has appeared, White Oaks Springs have received gifts from these areas…and beyond. God does work in mysterious ways.

When White Oaks Springs began this ministry, they had more volunteers than they could use. Because of the size of the room where the water is stored, they were soon getting in one another’s way. Now Member Fred McIntyre; his daughter, Jenna Alexander; her husband, Dan; and Russ Kelley—all residents of the Woodlands, and former Pastor Dreyer do all the leg work. They volunteer their time––about two hours per week. At this point, the congregation is providing the space for the water bank with members making contributions of money and water.

Sadly, there seems to be no end in sight for the water dilemma in The Woodlands. There have been many attempts to get local government officials to help get water piped into the area…but to no avail. There seems to be no interest in helping these people. There is hope that the Biden infrastructure plan might supply the help that the residents need. 

Though Dreyer is now retired from serving White Oaks Springs, he continues his commitment to Water for Woodlands. And White Oak Springs Church will house the water bank until there is no longer the need.

If you or your congregation would like to make a financial contribution to this mission, make checks out to Water for Woodlands and mail to Water for Woodlands, 451 Cherokee Drive, Butler, PA 16001.