After 118 years, Cape Girardeau's reliance on the river for drinking water comes to an end

Friday, April 6, 2012
The Cape Rock Water Treatment Plant switched to using 100% well water as the source for Cape Girardeau's water during a ceremony Thursday, April 5. The Mississippi River has been the city's water source for 118 years. (ADAM VOGLER)

Industries that dot its famous banks add to the amount of lead in its waters. Agricultural runoff contributes a variety of other harmful pollutants. Shudder at the thought, but even fecal coliform bacteria, found in the intestinal tract of humans and other mammals, can be found in the messy mix that makes up the largest river system in North America.

And for more than a century, when Cape Girardeau residents took a sip, at least a portion of what passed through their lips originated in the Mississippi River.

That was until Thursday, when Mayor Harry Rediger ceremonially ended the city's 118 years of reliance on -- yes, heavily treated -- river water with the click of a mouse.

"Gone!" Rediger said after he pushed the button that shut off the pumps at the river's nearby intake valves.

The ceremony, held at the Cape Rock Water Treatment Plant, concluded the city's 15-year effort to switch exclusively to well water for its roughly 18,000 water customers. The event was attended by a hodgepodge of city officials, Alliance Water Resource and a representative of the state Department of Natural Resources.

The change will result in softer, better-tasting water for residents and less maintenance for the city, said Kevin Priester, water services manager for Alliance, which is contracted to oversee the city's water system.

"I can really tell [a difference]," Priester said. "But I guess maybe I'm more conscious of it. There's a lot of ways to treat water. But what we're doing now, in my opinion, makes the best water you can make."

Treating the cleaner well water should provide savings to the city, Priester said. While the Mississippi River required the use of more than a dozen treatment chemicals, fewer will be needed to treat the cleaner well water, he said. The savings is expected to offset the additional electric costs that will be incurred to pump the water from the four alluvial wells that were recently built along old U.S. 61 near the Diversion Channel. It will cost more, he said, to pump the water the six miles to the treatment plant on Cape Rock Drive.

Alliance maintenance worker Don Stout points to where the water intake system is in the Mississippi river after shutting down the system used to transport river water to the Cape Rock Water Treatment Plant, Thursday, April 5, after the plant switched to using 100% well water as the source for Cape Girardeau's water during a ceremony. The Mississippi River has been the city's water source for 118 years. (Adam Vogler)

"We'll probably end up with a savings, and it will be cheaper overall," Priester said. "But with the electric cost, it won't be significant. The thing I worry about, if we focus on chemical savings, people will say, 'Why didn't my water bill go down?'"

Hopefully, he said, they'll see it as a worthwhile cost for cleaner, better-tasting water that will reduce calcium buildup on household items from water heaters to coffeepots. That should also drive down maintenance costs because calcium deposits cause line breaks from time to time.

The process has been long and problematic at times, including difficulties that arose because of flooding and sinkholes. But Priester noted that the delays in the project actually helped fund it. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 provided $849,000 in stimulus money to help pay for the building the pipeline from the wells to the plant.

Rediger called the switch?over a major infrastructure improvement and marveled at the thought of the city's change after so many years of reliance on the river water.

"This will be a landmark change in what goes through our pipes and into our homes through our system from here on," Rediger said. "Our water will be softer, more consistent and we'll be able to use less chemicals to treat it."

In 1894, what was then Missouri Utilities established Cape Girardeau's first water system. More than three decades later, the Cape Rock Treatment Plant opened and was expanded in 1954 and again in 1967. A second, Ramsey Branch Treatment Plant, was built in 1978 near the corner of South Sprigg Street and old U.S. 61 and expanded in 1990. Two years later, Cape Girardeau bought the system from AmerenUE, which is now Ameren Missouri.

The river was the sole provider of drinking water until 1977, when Ameren drilled its first wells. Later, treatment capacity was doubled with more wells near the secondary water treatment plant. But Ameren only used well water sparingly, mainly during the summer's peak use times.

After the city bought the water system, the efforts of exclusively switching from river water to well water took on more urgency. In 2006, city voters passed a $26.5 million bond issue and sales tax, which was partially used for a $17.6 million expansion to the city's Cape Rock facility. That project, which also boosted the plant's capacity from 4.5 million gallons to 7.6 million gallons per day, also called for the drilling of 10 wells. But those wells, for various reasons, never produced the needed amounts.

But the city then found a massive underground water supply along old U.S. 61, and subsequent testing showed that a safe water yield was about 250 million gallons a day. The new wells got drilled in the last three years and each will pump 1,800 gallons per minute. In recent weeks, the amount of river water in the mix shrank as each of the four new wells were brought online. The wells, controls and generator cost about $2.6 million. The pipeline was about another $2 million. The money came from a combination of the stimulus money, State Revolving Fund loans and the sales tax and bond revenue.

The river water could be used again, Priester said, but only as a backup in case of emergency.

When speaking to the crowd Thursday, Priester said that they talked for years about getting off river water. One former plant superintendent referred to the trek as a search for the promised land.

"Well, today we reached the promised land," Priester said.


Pertinent address:

20 E. Cape Rock Drive, Cape Girardeau, MO

Map of pertinent addresses

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