JEFFERSON COUNTY • The mightily low Mississippi River, although bolstered by recent snow and rain, isn’t rising fast enough to suit some towns that rely on it for water.
While most cities say water supplies are in good shape – or at least in better shape than a few months ago – some Jefferson County towns continue to grapple with shortages and bad-tasting and smelly water.
The problem is especially bad in Festus, where city officials are pulling water from wells because the Mississippi cannot provide enough. The water runs through cast-iron pipes, some 100 years old, which leaves it with a metallic taste in some homes. The water also can leave clothes washed in it with rust stains.
“We don’t drink it all,” said Thomas Palos, who said his family buys bottled water and until they bought a $480 filter, showered at a YMCA.
The foul water has stained his toilets and wrecked a hot water heater in a rental property he owns, he said.
The Jefferson County Water Authority is supposed to provide water for Festus and Herculaneum. But since Jan. 8, it has only supplied Herculaneum.
“We’re not getting enough for both towns,” said Steve Settlemoir, who manages the water plant. The authority is pulling an average of about 700,000 gallons a day from the Mississippi. Last year’s average was 1.6 million gallons, he said.
The problem is twofold: Low water levels on the Mississippi, as well as the location of the collector well that pulls the water through screened pipes. It wasn’t put in an ideal spot when it was built in 2003, which means the lines clog easily, Settlemoir said.
Of the five lines that run 15 feet under the river, only three work.
The plant typically runs nonstop but recently has been running just 10 to 12 hours a day.
“If the river would come up and stay up, we could probably serve both towns,” Settlemoir said. But if there’s another dry summer, he said he can’t predict what could happen.
The St. Louis gauge reached minus 4.57 feet on Jan. 1, the ninth-lowest reading on record and about 1 1/2 feet shy of the record low. Early Friday, the gauge read 2.37 feet, a rise of more than two feet in a week after recent snow and rain, according to the National Weather Service in St. Louis.
“When I go down to the Mississippi, I can’t believe what I’m looking at,” said Tim Whaley, water superintendent of Crystal City, of the low water level.
City officials late last year issued a voluntary water conservation request, asking residents to take shorter showers, do fewer loads of laundry and to have a full dishwasher before running it. The request is still in effect.
The city doesn’t pull water directly from the Mississippi but relies on the river bottoms to fill two wells that feed the water to its treatment plant.
The wells normally supply about 500 gallons of water a minute. But because of the low water, they can only pull about half that amount, Whaley said.
“It’s almost like a helpless feeling,” Whaley said. “When you don’t have it, you don’t have it.”
Other areas have fared better. Almost all of the water intakes used by Missouri American Water, which draws from the Missouri and the Meramec rivers, were built after 1963, a year the Missouri hit historic lows. They were designed to survive low water levels, said Ann Dettmer, a Missouri American spokeswoman.
St. Louis residents, whose drinking water comes from the Mississippi via a plant near the Chain of Rocks Bridge and the Missouri River near Chesterfield, also avoided shortages, said Curt Skouby, the city’s water commissioner and director of public utilities.
One reason is the Chain of Rocks plant is behind a dam that keeps the water at a good level, he said.
Residents in O’Fallon, Ill., complained a few months ago about water that tasted and smelled bad, but complaints have tapered off, said Dennis Sullivan, city engineer and public works director.
Sediment in the water too small to see was to blame, he said, a problem caused by the low Mississippi and a lower intake.
“The water is safe to drink, but it smelled funny to some people,” Sullivan said.
Some residents put charcoal filters on their faucets, which seemed to help.
The city buys its water from Illinois American Water, which over the winter installed additional pumping equipment that could get water deeper when river levels were low this winter, said Karen Cotton, a spokeswoman.
Meanwhile in Festus, residents whose clothes are iron-stained can come to the Public Works department to pick up a stain-removing solution — but the solution doesn’t always work, said Happy Welch, the city administrator.
He said the city will focus on cleaning and fixing the cast-iron lines and is hopeful it can switch back to using Mississippi water by the end of the month.
“We’re doing everything we can,” Welch said. “But it sometimes doesn’t seem like it.”