Primero Agua

Word spreads fast around Pimienta de Cortes, Honduras, and the surrounding area whenever a team of volunteers with Primero Agua (Water First), the nonprofit organization dedicated to bringing clean water to the people of Honduras, arrives to drill new wells.

“ ‘The gringos are in town,’ ” Jay Quattlebaum, Washington, one of the founders of Primero Agua, says with a smile.

Villagers will come to the bodega where the Primero Agua team stays to ask if the volunteers can drill them a well. A few years ago, people from an entire village hiked down a steep hill just for a chance to make their plea.

As much as the Primero Agua team wanted to help the villagers, they couldn’t, said Quattlebaum. The drilling rig wasn’t capable of working in their location.

“They were on top of a ridge, and it would have been a 400- or 500-foot deep well, and our rig then would only drill to around 200 feet, so there was no way we could help them,” he said. “It just really tears at your heart.”

That meant the villagers had to continue walking 1 1/2 miles or so down their steep hill to reach a hand-dug well where they could fill jugs of water and then walk 1 1/2 miles back up the hill carrying the heavy jugs.

It took about an hour to navigate their way down the steep hill to the well and 1 1/2 hours to get back up to the village, noted Leo Meyer, Marthasville, who has made numerous trips to Pimienta with Primero Agua over the last seven years.

“And they do that every day,” said Quattlebaum, noting it’s mostly women and children who spend their days doing this, which means those children can’t go to school “because they have to help their families carry water.”

Soon, Primero Agua and it’s Honduran sister organization, El Agua Tu Prioridad (Water, Your Priority), will be able to help villagers who need deeper wells.

A newer and larger Midway 1,000 drilling rig purchased with $150,000 in donations mostly from people in this area was sent to Texas last week for test drilling, and plans are to have it shipped to Honduras in February.

Until now, the team has used a CME-75 drill rig that had been donated by Terracon Consulting Engineers. It got the job done, said Quattlebaum, but it was really designed for more environmental drilling.

“We converted it to water well drilling, but we were limited. We could really only drill to 200 feet with it,” he said. “This new one is designed for water well drilling, and it’s much heavier.

“It can technically drill to 1,000 feet. We are equipped with enough drill pipe to drill to 400 feet. So we can now drill deeper and larger wells,” said Quattlebaum.

14 New Wells Since 2010

Primero Agua was formed in 2010 by three members of the Washington Overseas Mission who had been going to Pimienta since 1992 to provide free medical, dental and construction services.

They saw firsthand how the lack of clean water was preventing the people from achieving better health and education, not to mention how it kept them living in poverty. It was common for people living there to die from diarrhea brought on by drinking contaminated drinking water.

“Children living in these poor environments often carry 1,000 parasitic worms in their bodies at any time,” said Quattlebaum.

In 2012, Primero Agua and El Agua Tu Prioridad were able to begin drilling wells around Pimienta — two in February and two in August when the Primero Agua teams came to town.

The difference that having clean water made for the people can be measured in the number of diarrhea cases.

In 2012, Pimienta had a total of 353 cases of diarrhea (239 in children under 15, 114 in adults and no deaths). By July 1, 2013, that number was down by 90 percent, said Quattlebaum.

In the first half of 2013, there were only 35 cases of diarrhea in children under age 15 and no adult cases, according to a report prepared by Dr. Martha Elena Rodriguez of the Honduran Health Department at the request of Primero Agua. But even better — there had been no deaths from diarrhea.

Since 2010, Primero Agua and El Agua Tu Prioridad have drilled 14 new wells that now provide clean water to some 2,800 people.

The groups also have repaired or reconditioned more than 70 existing wells improving the quality and production of water for as many as 14,000 people.

Major Progress, Short Amount of Time

After incorporating as a nonprofit in 2010 and forming the subsidiary nonprofit foundation, El Agua Tu Prioridad, in Honduras, Primero Agua was able to get to work:

In 2011, volunteers reconditioned 10 wells in Pimienta, setting one hand pump and one electrical submersible pump in abandoned wells.

They also paid to ship the CME-75 drilling rig that had been donated by Terracon Consulting Engineers out of Kansas City to Honduras.

In 2012, they drilled four water wells and installed hand pumps.

In 2013, the Honduran crew with El Agua Tu Prioridad drilled its first well by themselves, drilled another well jointly and installed a hand pump. They also reconditioned 18 wells.

The next three years, they drilled eight more wells, installed a hand pump in an abandoned well and reconditioned more than 40 wells.

They have been able to do these things with support from the Engineers Without Borders (EWB) chapter at Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla;

Ameren Missouri, which donated an Ingersoll Rand air compressor; and

Several local Rotary Clubs, which sponsored Primero Agua, El Agua Tu Prioridad and EWB in receiving a Rotary Foundational Global Grant, which was used to purchase more trucks and drilling equipment.

In addition to drilling wells, Primero Agua has invested in the education of Fernando Ugarte, a Honduran man and active member of the drilling team. He lived with the Quattlebaums in Washington for a year while he completed basic requirement classes at East Central College.

From there, he transferred to Southwest Mississippi Community College where he received an associate’s degree in well drilling construction technology.

“It’s the only place in the country where you can get an associate’s degree in that,” said Quattlebaum, noting when Fernando Ugarte graduated from there in 2015, he was the first foreign student to have done so.

Now Ugarte leads the El Agua Tu Prioridad drilling teams in Honduras, so when the Primero Agua crew is not there, the men on the team are still working.

“We were limited with what he could do down there by himself with the old rig,” Quattlebaum explained. “Because the wells we were drilling with the old rig were smaller wells for communities and villages that have no other means of getting clean water, likewise they didn’t have any money to pay for anything, so it was all charity work.

“Now with this new, larger rig, we have been approached by several organizations to drill larger wells for other nonprofits, so that’s what we hope this will be able to offset some of our operating costs down there,” said Quattlebaum.

That also means that with the newer, larger rig, the Honduran men on the team that have been trained will be able to work full time for El Agua Tu Prioridad year-round.

“The Engineers Without Borders chapter from Rolla has approached us to drill four wells for them. There’s another chapter from Illinois that wants us to drill wells for them,” said Quattlebaum. “So that’s how we can keep our people, the Hondurans that we’ve trained, employed, because otherwise, when we’re not there, it’s part-time work for them.”

‘Humbled’ by Overwhelming Support

There were a couple of reasons why Primero Agua decided the timing was right last fall to start a capital campaign to purchase a newer, larger drilling rig.

First, the CME-75 drilling rig limited where in the country they could drill, since it could only go to a depth of 200 feet.

“And the longer we work down there, the more requests we get to drill wells, people coming to us,” said Quattlebaum.

Second, it was a good time to buy because the price on used drilling rigs had come down as a result of the downturn in the oil industry.

They had $40,000 already saved from past fundraisers and donations, but they expected the cost to purchase a larger rig and ship it to Honduras could run as high as $150,000. They expected it might take as long as a couple of years to reach that goal.

They mailed letters outlining their plans to past donors and people who had supported the organization. The positive response overwhelmed them.

“We were just really amazed at the number of donations we received,” said Quattlebaum, noting they had surpassed their goal after just three months, all in the form of cash donations, not pledges.

“It’s kind of a testimony to our work that we’ve done that people entrust us with their money. We have no overhead expenses; we are all volunteers,” said Quattlebaum.

When someone donates to Primero Agua, 100 percent of the money is used to provide clean water to people of Honduras, said Meyer.

“No one takes any kind of salary, and everyone pays their own way,” he stressed.

Donors tell him they appreciate that a lot — and they like knowing exactly where their donation is going, even seeing photos and talking with the men who are there doing the work.

One reason why the campaign was able to reach the goal so quickly is that a few individuals, who had never donated to Primero Agua before, made several very large donations.

“It was amazing,” said Meyer. “In one particular family, three or four of the sons gave us sizable donations, and the parents gave a donation. It was just really great.

“It’s great for me because not only do I get to meet the people who give the money, which makes me happy, but then I go down to Honduras and those people are super happy when we can drill them a well,” Meyer remarked.

“We were all really overwhelmed and humbled by the outpouring of support that we’ve had in this really small community,” added Quattlebaum, noting that while some donations came from St. Louis, the majority were from this area.

“We really appreciate and want to thank everyone who has donated,” said Meyer. “There has been a lot of divine intervention. It’s amazing how things came together.”

Why Honduras?

Donors were so willing to open their pockets to help the people in Honduras because they know the critical importance of good, clean water.

“Everything starts with good water,” said Meyer.

“It has a multiplier effect down there,” Quattlebaum added.

The money they invest in providing these wells pays dividends in the health and education of the people, young children in particular.

“People always ask why we go to Honduras to help when there are poor people here too,” said Quattlebaum. “Yes, there are, and there’s a lot of good nonprofits here and governmental programs, but down there, there is no safety net for people. There’s no one to help you; the government’s not going to help you.

“People say, ‘Well, they can boil their water.’ Sure, to do that they have to chop firewood and all that. And in a tropical climate, where it’s already 90 to 100 degrees, if you boil the water, how long will it take to cool down to use it? They don’t have refrigerators. So that’s even worse,” he added.

“Clean water has an immediate effect on the health of the community and allowing the children to go to school and the women to do other things or help provide,” said Quattlebaum.

Rig Found Nearby

Primero Agua used a broker to search across the country and even into Canada for the right rig at the right price. The age was important, since a Honduran law doesn’t allow trucks older than 13 years to be imported.

“So we found a lot of nice rigs, but the trucks they were on were too old,” said Quattlebaum. “We found this one in Illinois, near Mount Vernon.”

It was brought to Washington, where Riechers Tire and Auto did some work on it. Fischer Oil provided a pressure washing and Siedhoff Trucking in Union completed an inspection.

Last Thursday, the rig left Washington for Texas, where volunteers will make sure it’s working and drill a test well. The rig is scheduled to be shipped from Gulfport, Miss., to Port of Cortez in Honduras in February.

The CME-75 rig will be moved to a second location on the coast, where they have contact with a group that started an orphanage and bilingual school.

Plans are to have Ugarte train some of the graduates of that orphanage/school to operate the rig so they will be able to have jobs drilling wells in that area for El Agua Tu Prioridad.

“We are moving into a whole new phase with our nonprofit,” said Quattlebaum. “The role of Primero Agua has always been to help with the financing and to bring the skills and knowledge to the Hondurans to train them.

“Now we’ve trained them and hopefully they will get to where they are more self-sufficient and be able to cover their operating expenses, so we’ll be funding bigger purchases or doing more charity work,” said Quattlebaum.

To learn more about Primero Agua, go to

Donations are always welcome, either online or through the mail. Checks made out to Primero Agua can be mailed to P.O. Box 89, Washington, MO 63090.