From the time it was built in 1972, Columbia’s water treatment plant at McBaine has worked like a heart pumping on overdrive, trying to outpace explosive growth and sweltering Missouri summers.
It works great most of the time, plant superintendent John Betz said. For one, Columbia has had a constant supply of water. For another, he said, that water is remarkably clean.
There’s only one problem, Betz said: Before long, the plant won’t be able to pump fast enough.
On Nov. 4, city officials will ask voters to approve what they call the easiest solution: a $28.3 million bond issue that, among other things, would expand the water treatment plant’s capacity by one third. Betz said that should tide the growing city over . . . at least for a while.
If the issue passes, average water bills for Columbia residents will rise incrementally from $14.14 now to $18.15 by 2009. In return, Columbians won’t have to deal with what city officials say could be inevitable watering restrictions on some hot summer days.
The city almost imposed watering restrictions in August, when the water plant pumped a record 21.35 million gallons in one day — barely short of the plant’s 24-million-gallon capacity.
Proposed renovations to the plant would help it pump up to 32 million gallons a day, giving it some breathing room and accommodating the city’s expansion. If the issue passes, Betz said, some renovations could be finished within a year.
“If someone would just give us the money, we’re ready to move,” Betz said.
Columbia is lucky, Betz said, because it draws from its own aquifer, which is constantly replenished. Equipment, he said, is the only obstacle between Columbia residents and a virtually unlimited supply of water.
The system is fed by wells that suck water from an aquifer near the Missouri River. The aquifer, sort of a bedrock bathtub about 100 feet below ground, holds 44 billion gallons of water — enough to fill nearly 50,000 Olympic-size swimming pools.
The bond issue eventually would pay for two new wells but first would buy the plant a new set of purifying equipment that removes iron and other bad-tasting, laundry-staining minerals from the water.
It also would pay for the installation of a new 36-inch water main that would run several miles from the McBaine plant to the city.
Currently, Columbia Water and Light Chief Engineer Mike Schmitz said, Columbia keeps all its eggs in one basket. There is only one water main, buried about five feet deep, leading from the treatment plant to the city.
This usually isn’t a problem, Schmitz said, unless construction workers accidentally bore into it as they did in 2000.
If the main breaks, Columbia can draw from a stored supply and hook-ups with neighboring water systems. The city won’t run out of water, but Columbians would have to cut back on water use until the main was fixed, said Floyd Turner, manager of city water operations.
“If it happened sometime like the middle of August, we’d have a problem,” Turner said.
A new main would give the city some leeway. If one main were to break, the plant could send water through the other. The parallel mains also would support more water coming from the plant, and one could be shut down for regular maintenance.
“You can only send so much water through a pipe,” Betz said.