CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo. (AP) - The Mississippi River is a big part of Cape Girardeau's identity, but soon the Mighty Mississippi will no longer provide drinking water to the southeast Missouri community that sits along its banks.
Until 1977, the river was the sole provider of treatable drinking water for Cape Girardeau's 18,000 water customers. That's when AmerenUE, which operated the system until the city bought it in 1992, drilled its first wells.
The Southeast Missourian (http://bit.ly/w7c3G5) reports that over the next three months, the city will complete a roughly $5 million project to switch to almost exclusively well water. Officials say that will end a 15-year effort that results in better-tasting, softer water for residents and fewer costs and less maintenance for the city.
It will also offer peace of mind.
"People go down to the river and say, 'Ew, we drink that?'" said Kevin Priester, water systems manager for Alliance Water Resource, which is contracted to oversee the city's water system.
"It's not like they're getting a drink directly from the river," he said. "But it's a mental, psychological thing."
Four new alluvial wells built along old U.S. 61 near the Diversion Channel are expected to come online by the spring.
"This is a major step in the right direction for the future of the city of Cape," said Public Works director Tim Gramling. "By the time we're through, people are really going to notice."
The idea of switching away from river water to wells began in earnest soon after the city bought the water system from Ameren. In 1996, city voters passed a $26.5 million bond issue and sales tax that was partially used for a $17.6 million expansion to the water treatment plant. That project included 10 wells.
But those wells alone weren't enough to solely provide the city water supply. At best, the mix of river water to well water was seldom better than 50-50.
Eventually, the city found a massive underground water supply near the Diversion Channel. Testing showed that a safe water yield was more than enough for the community, prompting development of four new wells.
Gramling said that over the past 12 months, nearly 7 miles of piping was installed to get the water from the wells to the main water plant.
City officials are currently operating one of the four wells at any given time as a test run, which means about 70 percent of the current drinking water is well water.
The ground water from the wells still comes from the river, but Gramling said the abundance of sand and gravel serves as a filter. As a result, the well water doesn't have to be as heavily treated, potentially saving hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual chemical costs.
Information from: Southeast Missourian, http://www.semissourian.com