COLUMBIA — In 1903, Columbia residents voted to sink wells 1,200 feet deep into an aquifer below the city, searching for clean drinking water.
According to a history of the city's water supply compiled by John O'Connor of H2O'C Engineering, the water they found was of "exceptionally high quality," far superior to the Hinkson Creek water they had been drinking until then.
But as the city grew, demand for water outpaced what the high-quality aquifer could provide. In the late 1960s, the city of Columbia began tapping the alluvial aquifer near McBaine.
Since then, the utility kept up with Columbia's population growth by drilling more wells. Now, some of the city’s 15 wells have lost a bit of their pumping capacity over time as sediment makes the wells less productive.
Water and Light spokeswoman Connie Kacprowicz said production from the city's wells in the Missouri River bottoms stands at about 24.5 million gallons per day, down from their initial capacity of 28 million gallons per day.
According to Water and Light statistics, demand for water is approaching the all-time high set in 2006, when it reached about 4.6 billion gallons.
In February, the Water and Light Advisory Board agreed that three new wells be drilled so long as the city embarks on a comprehensive look at the water system. The new wells were approved in February, and a panel has been established to review water conservation, education about water use, rate structures, incentives and stormwater reuse.
"The new wells will get us back to the production amounts that all the wells cumulatively used to have, along with an extra well for standby purposes," Kacprowicz said.
During last year’s drought, a high demand led Water and Light to consider drilling the new wells.
“We weren’t to the point where we were going to be asking people to use less water, but we were closer than any of us liked,” said Bob Roper of the Water and Light Advisory Board.
Columbia’s water use has doubled since 1982, according to statistics from Water and Light.
According to Water and Light, the city’s annual water use peaked in 2006 at about 4.6 billion gallons — enough to fill the 50-meter competitive swimming pool in MU’s Student Recreation Complex 5,126 times. That year was relatively dry with about 33 inches of precipitation, according to National Weather Service data.
Wetter years followed, and water use dropped slightly to 3.9 billion gallons by 2009. But in 2012, precipitation was about 30 inches, and water use was back up to about 4.5 billion gallons.
Lawns and landscapes are among the thirstiest consumers of Columbia's water. In the summer, when residents are watering their lawns, city customers use 57 percent more water than winter months, Kacprowicz said.
Water demand and supply march together, with demand putting one step forward, then supply moving a step ahead. Columbia Water and Light stays ahead of demand by drilling more wells. The city drilled the latest well in 2006.
Overall, municipal water managers “tend to over-engineer and exceed capacity. We really err on the side of safety and reliability,” Tom O’Connor, who also serves on the Water and Light board, said. “It's not like we're going to run out of water.”
Hank Ottinger, another member of the Water and Light board, is also interested in slowing a march of expansion in the water system that's expensive and comes with a heavy reliance on fossil fuels for pumping and distribution.
O’Connor wanted to make it clear that the most important targets for reducing demand are water uses that don’t necessarily require the high quality water the city's treatment process provides.
“We're all getting kind of dragged into this proposition that we will treat water to drinking water standards and will fully meet demands,” O’Connor said. “If we're going to decide that as a community, we should very explicitly decide that as a community.”
Rain barrels that gather storm water and reuse it for irrigation are one way to diminish the use of potable water. Another idea is showers that fill toilet bowls with used, but not unusable, water. The city has plenty of information about rain barrels on its website.
Encouraging customers to buy less water is one way to slow demand. One of the most effective ways, O'Connor said, is to make it more expensive for customers to buy more water, creating an incentive for conservation.
“If you want to get serious, rate structure is the strongest tool,” O’Connor said.
The utility already uses a tiered rate structure from June through September, when water use is at its highest. For residential customers within city limits, water costs about 36 cents for every 100 gallons for the first 3,000 gallons. After that, the rate jumps to about 51 cents for every 100 gallons.
If a customer passes the 3,000-gallon mark, they will only notice the rate increase if they read their bill closely, Ottinger said.
“Our billing structure doesn’t allow for that kind of feedback,” Ottinger said. “If there were some kind of feedback mechanism, so people realize, ‘Oh my gosh, my water bill is going up.’”
Ottinger and O’Connor both spoke to the need to educate Columbia residents to make voluntary steps toward efficiency. Water and Light has pages of conservation tips on its website, but Ottinger doesn’t think too many people are reading them.
“I think there are other things we can do besides putting stuff on the website,” Ottinger said. He mentioned public service announcements, mailers and public forums as possibilities.
Ottinger identified some major sources of waste that could be better addressed such as identifying water leaks, large and small, in the water mains and in customers’ pipes.
“Because the price of water is so cheap, I think people don’t really pay attention to a little waste here, a little waste there,” Ottinger said.
Water and Light’s Web page offers a tip for customers to identify leaks in their homes: check the reading on the water meter, then stop all water use for 30 minutes. Check the meter again. If it’s still increasing, there must be a leak.
Columbia’s residents could significantly reduce their demand for irrigation water by changing how they water their lawns, Ottinger said. “Most people overwater, and not only that, they water at the wrong time of day,” he said.
Water and Light recommends watering 1 inch per week, divided among about three separate waterings. Homeowners should water from 6 to 8 a.m. to avoid water loss to evaporation, and they should use a rain gauge or can to measure how much water their sprinklers deliver.
Creating incentives to retrofit toilets and shower heads with water-efficient devices. Modifying building codes to require such devices could reduce demand as well, Ottinger said.
O’Connor said he would be interested in seeing the city enter a promotional partnership with the Environmental Protection Agency’s WaterSense project, which touts the benefits of water-efficient appliances.
“We have continuously failed to get on board with that. I’m not sure why,” O’Connor said.
To fully develop these ideas, the city is forming a subcommittee on water conservation. Members of the subcommittee will be: O’Connor, Ottinger, city sustainability manager Barbara Buffaloe, Water and Light engineering supervisor Tomas Zajicek, Water and Light engineering manager David Storvick, and Mike Heimos, stormwater educator with the Public Works Department.
Heimos said it’s difficult to encourage conservation in a water-rich environment like the Midwest.
"My hope is working with them, we can get people to understand it’s not an infinite resource," Heimos said.
The subcommittee will begin meeting in April and will take a broad look at how to manage Columbia’s water supply over the next several decades.
“Everything is on the table,” Ottinger said.