Kansas City, Mo. Utilities that supply water to the Kansas City area are considering spending millions of dollars on projects designed to overcome erosion and dropping water levels on the Missouri River.
The utilities already have expensive emergency pumps on standby to keep water flowing when the river drops below acceptable levels for intakes.
But more expensive projects are being considered, with costs passed on to taxpayers and ratepayers, because neither the seven-year drought in the Missouri River basin nor the channel cutting are expected to end soon.
"I dare say it's become severe and needs to be addressed," said John Grotehaus, the planning chief for the Army Corps of Engineers in Kansas City. "There are places where it's getting close to the foundation of levees."
The erosion also could threaten infrastructure such as bridge piers and drain pipes, he said.
Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt in October asked the corps to "evaluate the cause of channel degradation and present a reasonable solution."
But engineers say the forces that shape the river are so complicated they are unsure how to fix the problem. The corps has asked federal lawmakers for several years to fund a hydrology study that would cost at least $2.5 million, but the money has not been appropriated.
Engineers say the study would help them determine how channel structure, water flows and sediment disturbance work together to cause the riverbed erosion.
"If we rush to judgment on what the problem is, make long-term commitments, and it's a huge blunder, we would have lost a lot of time and money," Grotehaus said.
The river's bottom levels are stable elsewhere from Omaha, Neb., to St. Louis. But from Parkville through Kansas City, where the area's two most important intakes for drinking water are located, the river has dropped 10 feet or more since World War II. That, combined with low flows, has kept the water barely above the intakes.
Kansas City is considering spending up to $60 million on wells and a remodeled water intake in the river to address the problem.