ST. LOUIS — Ever wonder why St. Louis is shaped like a teardrop, with a long, narrow neck stretching miles northward from the north side to the Chain of Rocks bridge?
It’s all about the water.
“It was about protecting our water sources,” Water Commissioner Curt Skouby explained. “In the beginning, the city’s water intake was just above the present Arch grounds. Then, as sewer outlets moved farther north, water intakes moved upstream above them.”
Today, the city’s primary drinking water source and treatment plant are just above the Chain of Rocks rapids, literally surrounded by two popular myths.
This summer’s floods are hiding one of them: The churning water normally visible from the bridge is not the famous rapids — it’s just a low-water dam built in the 1950s to maintain a minimum level for barges entering Chain of Rocks Lock, the last dam on the entire Mississippi River.
Myth number two: The “castles” in the middle of the river are water intakes. Well, that’s half true. They were replaced long ago by a large modern intake building jutting into the river nearby.
After the Civil War, engineers saw the rapids as a natural low-water dam well-suited for a drinking water intake, but it took three decades to build the castles. Intakes migrated from the present-day Arch grounds to Bissell Point — now a major sewage treatment plant — and then above the Chain of Rocks in 1894.
“Mark Twain wrote a tremendous amount about St. Louis water,” said water production engineer Frank Genovese, standing atop the concrete intake building. “He would say that you could tell a non-St. Louisan because [they] would let the solids settle in the water and drink the water off the top. A St. Louisan, if the water settled, they’d stir it around to get all that flavor, and they’d drink the water.
So, St. Louisans like their flavor.”
Our tap water is no longer delivered with complimentary Mississippi mud, but it still wins nationwide honors for flavor. A 2007 U.S. Conference of Mayors blind taste test placed St. Louis water at the top of its class, and the Pur water filter company recently gave it similar kudos.
The St. Louis Water Department produces 100-150 million gallons of clean water each day in a series of treatments that removes solids, kills bacteria, reduces industrial and agricultural chemicals and then softens it — which also minimizes lead.
At the tap, lead levels are nearly undetectable. Ironically, much of the credit goes to the city’s antiquated lead supply pipes that, after more than a century, are coated on the inside with calcium scaling that prevents lead from leaching into drinking water. That age, though, is also a concern.
“The city has owned this utility since 1835,” Genovese said. “We’ve made lots of improvements, but some of our facilities — our plants and in our distribution — are near the end of their life cycle. Nothing lasts forever, so we really need to start getting some funding in place to make this utility sustainable for our future customers.”
When Mississippi River water enters the water works, it goes through an enormous pump station that forwards it to outdoor circular settling tanks called clarifiers built inthe early 2000s, greatly improving the facility’s efficiency. Acres of sedimentation basins that were once the primary stages are now tasked with reducing organic and inorganic contamination using coagulants and chlorine. At the end of the line, the water is filtered through basins of fine-grained sand in a
century-old building, two football fields long, that is a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark.
In 1929, with population rapidly heading toward one million, St. Louis built a second water works at Howard Bend on the Missouri River in present-day Chesterfield. When population began plummeting in the 1970s, the city was left with overcapacity, and water became a revenue generator rather than a drain on tax dollars.
“Not only do we provide water to the city of St. Louis,” Genovese added, “we also provide water to wholesale customers out in St. Charles County and to Missouri American [Water] … which brings in extra funds.”
During recent flooding, some customers worried that radioactive groundwater from Coldwater Creek and the West Lake Landfill (World War II-era atomic bomb waste sites) might percolate into the Missouri River.
Genovese noted that both sites are downstream from the water intakes at Howard Bend and that if any contaminated water did enter the Missouri River it would be highlydiluted before reaching the Chain of Rocks. He added that in years of water testing, the water department had found no radiation.
Oil refineries upstream near Alton, Ill., are another pollution worry. Genovese said that he had never had a spill and that the Missouri River buffered the Chain of Rocks from Mississippi River water because the two do not fully mix for several miles after the confluence.
“Pollution from tugs and sinking barges is more of a concern than anything else,” Genovese said.
After more than a century and a slew of high-tech improvements, one thing hasn’t changed at Chain of Rocks. Standing atop the intake building, Genovese was joined by water treatment plant operator Tim Reynolds, steel bucket in hand. He tossed the pail into the swirling currents 30 feet below and hauled it up to fill a jar with muddy water.
“That’s still the best way to take a daily sample of river water,” Genovese said, laughing.