Kansas City, Mo. — Record low levels on the Missouri River are causing problems for some communities that rely on the nation's longest river for drinking water, as well as utilities that use the water to cool equipment.
And an official with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said Friday continued drought conditions could hamper summer recreational activity on the river and restrict barge traffic when it resumes in April.
The Missouri River was nearly 5 feet below normal in Kansas City earlier this week, a record low, said Paul Johnston, a spokesman for the Corps' Reservoir Control Center in Omaha, Neb.
The municipal water department in Kansas City has been forced to sink intake pipes and pumps several feet deeper into the river to keep them submerged. Even before the drought, the water pipes already were closer to the water's surface after floods in 1993 and 1997 washed out part of the bottom of the river.
"They were getting close to sucking air three or four days ago," said Ron Goold, assistant director of the Water Services Department.
Kansas City recently petitioned the Corps to increase the flow of water it releases from upstream reservoirs, and the extra water started flowing this week. But Corps officials are reluctant to further increase the output from the six reservoirs because levels in the reservoirs are already as much as 19 feet below normal.
The water levels are expected to remain low this summer because snow pack in the mountains that restocks the reservoirs is less than 60 percent of normal, Johnston said.
Steve Spaulding, a hydraulic engineer with the Corps, said the low water levels also increased the anxiety level of utilities that pump water from the river to cool equipment.
"It costs more to pump water, and the equipment is more subject to icing conditions that force them to shut down intakes," Spaulding said.
Johnston said the low river levels caused a different problem for utilities in the summer, when there is less water to dilute the warm water the utilities release back into the rivers.
If low water levels continue into summer, Johnston said, it could cause continued problems for marina and boat ramp operators along the river.
Charlotte Caldwell, owner of the American Creek Marina at Chamberlain, S.D., said the business still was operating but was hurting from the lack of water. "Our bait shop hardly functioned last year and the year before," she said.
Low water flow on the Missouri River also affects the Mississippi River -- the nation's main waterway for the shipment of commodities such as coal, grain, petroleum and chemicals.
Chris Brescia, president of the Midwest Area River Coalition, said water from the Missouri River accounted for 60 percent to 80 percent of water in the middle Mississippi River from St. Louis to Cairo, Ill.
Farmers and businesses are worried that lower water levels will mean increased shipping costs. When the water level is lower, barges can't be loaded as fully, and fewer barges can be moved with each boat because the river isn't as wide.