Kansas City, Mo. — Area utilities are concerned about the Missouri River's depth, saying they could have to turn on emergency equipment if the river drops a few more inches.
"We're about a quarter of a foot away from that point," said Tom Schrempp, production manager for Johnson County, Kan., Water District No. 1, where record lows at the district's water intake have left the suburban Kansas City district monitoring flows daily.
The problem is an unprecedented, long-term drought in the upper sections of the river. Water storage in the upstream reservoirs is at an all-time low, and some lake levels are 26 to 30 feet below normal.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers stopped water releases for navigation early this fall to conserve water. It's releasing just enough water from upstream reservoirs to keep utility intakes in the Kansas City area beneath the river's surface, said corps spokesman Paul Johnston.
John Reddy, treatment plant manager for the Kansas City Water Services Department, said the river is only about a half foot above the level where auxiliary pumps will need to be used.
Kansas City has wells, but they don't have enough capacity to supply the region's water needs, Reddy said.
"Consumers hopefully will not be affected," he said. "But there are added costs that eventually get passed along."
Added water pumps and other emergency equipment mean customers should have enough water and electricity, but that extra equipment and energy use increase operating costs.
"It's a whole new territory for us," said Schrempp, whose district spent $2 million in recent years to add pumps for low river conditions.
Low water also adds to treatment costs.
"We are seeing a lot more taste and odor in the water with it low," Schrempp said, "and we're having to add more powdered activated carbon to clean it up."
Hydrologist Tom Harris of the U.S. Geological Survey said river levels Nov. 13 at Kansas City were about a half foot from record lows set last December, when winter weather froze tributary inflows.
The river is 5 to 7 feet below normal for November, exposing numerous sandbars.