Does Water Make St. Louis the City of the Future? A visit to St. Louis’s water treatment plant reminds us that in this climate-changing world water is everything and the only thing.

The Chain of Rocks Water Treatment Plant (Photo: Stlwater/Okomaps)

“St. Louis alone would be an all-sufficient theme; for who can doubt that this prosperous metropolis is destined to be one of the mighty centers of our mighty Republic?”

—Charles Sumner, qtd. in “Prophetic Voices About St. Louis,” Saint Louis, The Future Great City of the World

 

 

 

 

 

It seems ridiculous, when a person reaches a certain age, not to have taken a greater interest in topics that are enormous, omnipresent, and vital to one’s own existence. The water supply, for instance.

The same might be said of nations. Wealth and technology have allowed development in regions of the country without adequate water, but when wealth and technology fail to sustain, we will be forced to pay greater attention.

Curt Skouby, Director of Public Utilities for the City of St. Louis, and I had been talking about how eighty-four percent of the American West is currently in various levels of drought, with warming temperatures and a failed precipitation cycle promising worse to come. Even bigger problems, once-in-a-millennium problems, may lie ahead for both its cities and agriculture.

The Mississippi is not just any river; it has the largest drainage basin on the continent, drawing from 31 U.S. states and two Canadian provinces.

“It’s just stupid to go to a desert, develop it, in an environment that isn’t designed to support the population you’re asking,” Curt said.

St. Louis was founded on the bank of a river, of course, an old-school practice. Water is life, as the Native American communities say. But the Mississippi is not just any river; it has the largest drainage basin on the continent, drawing from 31 U.S. states and two Canadian provinces. Curt has worked for the Water Division since 1986, and in 2008 was put in charge of clean water for the city, which draws from that seemingly-inexhaustible source.

Having reached a certain age last week, I wondered suddenly what benefits and challenges St. Louis has had with its water, and what it will face in the Anthropocene. I drove to the Chain of Rocks Water Treatment Plant, just north of the city, and met Curt for a tour.

 

•  •  •

 

Chain of Rocks is an interesting stretch of the Mississippi River. It is named for a 17-mile long shoal that has always been a danger to navigation and was the last obstacle to the desired channel between St. Paul, Minnesota, and New Orleans. Army Corps of Engineers Locks 27, the Chain of Rocks Canal, now takes boat traffic around the shoal and “moves more cargo than any other navigation structure on the Mississippi River.”

The Corps also built up one of the rock ledges in the river, under the old Route 66 bridge, to create Dam 27, a low-head dam made of natural rock and riprap that remains underwater most of the year but serves to keep a pool on the upstream side, for water supply, in case of drought.

Two strange, castle-like buildings sit in the current here, anchored by vertical shafts to the bedrock, 70 feet below. These red granite and limestone intake towers—not currently in use, and no longer manned—can draw water through gates at various depths. A state history site says “the waters of the Missouri and Mississippi are not sufficiently commingled at the Chain of Rocks. Tower #1 draws from Missouri River water, which flows closer to the shore, while #2 draws clearer water from the Mississippi, further out in the river.”

Muddy water swelled as it reached the hidden dam, and whitewater broke over the remains of a jetty that once went to Tower #1. The two bridges and intake towers were dwarfed by the mass of water sliding by.

Both intake towers can send water through seven-foot, brick-lined tunnels to the treatment plant, which sprawls most of a mile along the Missouri shore, off Riverview Drive. (There is a second treatment plant for St. Louis, on the Missouri River, called Howard Bend.)

Curt and I stood on top of a third intake tower on the shore. The wind was so high we nearly had to shout.

“It’s a great place to be,” he said, looking over the vast river.

Muddy water swelled as it reached the hidden dam, and whitewater broke over the remains of a jetty that once went to Tower #1. The two bridges and intake towers were dwarfed by the mass of water sliding by.

The Mississippi, which has been enlarged at this point by the Missouri River, a couple of miles upstream, and the Illinois, a few miles above that, was at 22 feet this day, not particularly high. Still, that is 350,000 cubic feet of water (the record is 755,000 cubic feet) passing by every second. That is 2.6 million gallons of water, enough to fill four Olympic pools instantaneously. Standing there, I could imagine pools on a belt stretching between the states, filling violently and concussively with brown water, second after second, day after day, forever.

Three stories under our feet, a yellow front-loader like a Tonka toy poked its bucket at a tree trunk and other flotsam caught in an eddy next to the bank, in hopes of removing them, which seemed unlikely. Bars on the front of the water intake keep out large things like trees anyway, and the intake building uses traveling screens, like a tank track on end, Curt said, with mesh baskets to screen out twigs, leaves, fish, and anything else bigger than one inch. A spray cleans the baskets, and the material is discharged back into the river.

The front-loader’s wheels slipped into the river and spun wildly to get out. A massive block of limestone sitting in the liminal zone of mud, sand, and water suddenly began to float and wobble, like a rubber ducky, in the front-loader slosh. I reached for the handrail. Curt pointed out it was Styrofoam that probably got loose from a dock somewhere upstream.

 

•  •  •

 

Modern water systems are such a big story that it is easy to forget how brief it is. My great-grandfather was alive when St. Louis was still scooping its water from the Mississippi in barrels at the end of Walnut Street, where the Gateway Arch is now, and pulling it from wells and cisterns.

Ah, you say, but the Romans. The Romans first moved water by aqueduct in 312 BC, but by “modern” I also mean consistently safe. For most of human history we have drunk whatever the river, stream, spring, lake, pond, aquifer, or well provided, without treatment. Microbial infection was not understood until late in the nineteenth century—if water was treated it was mostly for taste and odor—so there could be no defense against it.

Modern water systems are such a big story that it is easy to forget how brief it is.

James P. Kirkwood, a Scots civil engineer who spent most of his career building waterworks and railroads in the United States, became Chief Engineer of St. Louis in 1865 and was in charge of St. Louis’ water. His plan for a treatment plant to filter river water through sand was rejected by the Board of Water Commissioners, who thought filters unnecessary and expensive. Such a plant would have made St. Louis among the most advanced cities on the planet for public health. When his advice was ignored, twice, Kirkwood moved on (and was replaced by Walt Whitman’s younger brother). He built a similar system for Poughkeepsie, New York, instead.

The plan, which he did not invent, was simple, yet so effective it still underlies most water treatment. Water would be pumped into basins, where heavy particulates would drop out of the water column. The top layer of water would be drained, leaving sediment that could be washed from the basins back into the river. The water would then be filtered through a deep layer of sand on top of gravel on top of rocks. No one realized it then, but this process formed a bacterial mat on the sand that helped kill harmful microbes. We might not accept the resulting water as potable by our standards, but it was a huge step.

A few years later, in 1869, a new board commissioned Kirkwood to travel abroad and write a report on The Filtration of River Waters, for the Supply of Cities, as Practiced in Europe. In it he explains that London’s cholera epidemic of 1866 was caused by sewer runoff from villages in the Thames and Lea valleys, a similar danger for St. Louis as population grew. Before the concept of germ theory, he claims that sand filters are important to filter out “the many organisms, vegetable or animal, which in river waters prevail more or less during certain of the summer months.”

He quotes the Medical Officer of London, who said “that we have not at the present time any absolute test for discovering organic matters in water, much less the nature of those organic matters.” Chemists of the time, Kirkwood complains, could not even test water for what consumers knew smelled and tasted bad.

St. Louis, which relied solely throughout the nineteenth century on rudimentary reservoirs and “settling basins,” instead of filtering plants, had several epidemics from fecal-contaminated water, including a cholera outbreak in 1848-49 that killed almost 10 percent of the city.

By the time of a report in 1885, titled The Sanitary Condition of St. Louis, with Special Reference to Asiatic Cholera, the growing city had had four disastrous outbreaks, but at least infection was understood.

“In a city like ours,” the report says, “this most fatal disease is spread chiefly by means of privy vaults [pits under outhouses], and the water of wells and cisterns. […] To drink water defiled by cholera discharges, is to invite a disease that generally destroys half, or more than half, of all whom it attacks. […] Cities that properly valued pure water and cleanliness…suffered vastly less.”

St. Louis, which relied solely throughout the nineteenth century on rudimentary reservoirs and “settling basins,” instead of filtering plants, had several epidemics from fecal-contaminated water, including a cholera outbreak in 1848-49 that killed almost 10 percent of the city.

Despite this new knowledge, St. Louis did nothing more to treat its water than let it settle, until the eve of the 1904 World’s Fair.

Curt Skouby said, “They were able to start water treatment for the World’s Fair, could have the wherewithal to raise rates and start treatment, because they didn’t want to be embarrassed by having muddy water coming out of the fountains when the world [came] to St. Louis. They didn’t do it because of health reasons; they did it because they didn’t want to get embarrassed. I mean, it’s just kind of the nature of things, and sometimes the right things are done maybe for the wrong reason, but you get to where you need to be.”

 

•  •  •

 

In his report for the Board, James Kirkwood says, “Most of the European rivers, however, pass through lands where manure is used more extensively, and where a higher state of cultivation prevails than on the lands bordering our Western rivers; and where also a denser population usually exists. Our rivers, therefore, will not probably for a long time carry at any time the same amount of organic matter in suspension.”

It did not take that long. An article in the December 2009 issue of Civil Engineering explains how Chicago grew, in just six decades, from 5,000 residents to 1.6 million. Waste from public sewage and from industry, especially the slaughterhouses, went into the Chicago River, which drained into Lake Michigan, from which the city’s drinking water was drawn.

Upton Sinclair wrote in The Jungle about one branch of the Chicago River, called Bubbly Creek:

 

“The grease and chemicals that are poured into it undergo all sorts of strange transformations which are the cause of its name; it is constantly in motion as if huge fish were feeding in it or great leviathans disporting themselves in its depths. Bubbles of carbonic acid gas will rise to the surface and burst, and make rings two or three feet wide. Here and there the grease and filth have caked solid, and the creek looks like a bed of lava; chickens walk about on it, feeding, and many times an unwary stranger has started to stroll across, and vanished temporarily.”

 

In 1865, the same year Kirkwood first suggested a water treatment plant in St. Louis, Chicago planners decided to expand a rudimentary canal that would flush the city’s waste westward, instead, into the Des Plaines River, which led to the Illinois River and then the Mississippi. In 1892 work was finally begun. It was a massive project that gave a generation of engineers the experience to dig the Panama Canal.

City officials in St. Louis were concerned. Chicago officials, displaying a very American selfishness, said not to worry about it; their filth would be diluted by the time it reached St. Louis. St. Louis petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for an injunction to prevent the canal from opening, but Chicago learned of it and raced to finish. In 1900 the Chicago River was reversed.

In time that waste would begin to be treated before being released, but as the cities’ populations grew, the problems changed. In Chicago, a 2017 study says, “’High-density buildings, concrete, and impervious surfaces have replaced grassed and treed areas that absorb and hold rain water in the soil.” As a result, “The Chicago Sanitary District has added more storage using quarry basins and tunnels under the Chicago area to reduce the prospect of a major storm bringing untreated sewage, viruses, microbes, nutrients, and heavy metals into the Mississippi River System.” The project “consists of 110 miles of tunnels and reservoirs, which are actually old limestone quarries that capture and hold storm water and raw sewage until it can be treated at waste water treatment plants and discharged into the canals and rivers.”

There are many more cities, towns, factories, livestock farms, and agribusiness fields upstream of St. Louis now than there were in 1900.

 

•  •  •

 

Some of the citizens of old St. Louis considered modern water treatment fake news.

“And it is worthy of mention here that the old inhabitants of our city are so far from being averse to this admixture of sedimentary matter, that they almost regret that the new works now in construction will furnish them settled or clear water,” says L.U. Reavis in St. Louis: The Future Great City of the World, in a chapter titled, “Water as an Important Auxiliary to the Growth of a Great City, and the Advantage possessed by St. Louis for an Inexhaustible Supply.”

Twain says, of St. Louis water specifically, in Life on the Mississippi (1883), “It comes out of the turbulent, bank-caving Missouri, and every tumblerful of it holds nearly an acre of land in solution. I got this fact from the bishop of the diocese. If you will let your glass stand half an hour, you can separate the land from the water as easy as Genesis. . . . ” 

Reavis says St. Louis water was praised by a “daguerrean artist, whose business demands the purest water,” and that sailors swore it kept better and tasted better than any other water. He claims to have bottled water from the Mississippi at Chain of Rocks and drunk it 17 years later. He declared it excellent. (Curt told me St. Louis water is “naturally kind of hard, which helps with the stability of it,” but trapped in a bottle for 17 years “the disease-causing organism starved to death for lack of a host. Not going to go bad in that respect.”)

Twain says, of St. Louis water specifically, in Life on the Mississippi (1883), “It comes out of the turbulent, bank-caving Missouri, and every tumblerful of it holds nearly an acre of land in solution. I got this fact from the bishop of the diocese. If you will let your glass stand half an hour, you can separate the land from the water as easy as Genesis. . . . But the natives do not take them separately, but together, as nature mixed them. When they find an inch of mud in the bottom of a glass, they stir it up, and then take the draught as they would gruel. It is difficult for a stranger to get used to this batter, but once used to it he will prefer it to water.”

Turbidity aside, the untreated water’s supposed quality was always something of a boosterism. “It does not, however, agree with all who use it,” says a historical account on the Water Division’s webpage. “Some of those, especially Europeans, who after a long confinement on shipboard, and scant supply of water, find themselves in the midst of such a river, with power to drink just as much as they please, are apt to be rather seriously affected by its use.”

 

•  •  •

 

As Curt said, the turning point came in the weeks before the 1904 World’s Fair. Despite a local love for the brown water, “visitors still balked at the stuff,” says an article in the February 2015 issue of Civil Engineering. The new water commissioner at the time and his assistant engineer knew the sedimentation method would never produce clear water, so they tried a process called coagulation, already in use in Kansas City, Missouri, and Omaha. Chemicals such as alum, lime, or ferrous sulfate were added and interacted with “bacteria, dirt, and other impurities in the water to form clumps of flocculent precipitate.”

The amount of lime, the preferred treatment material, needed for a city the size of St. Louis was deemed prohibitive, but a Washington University graduate named John Wixford discovered a method using slaked lime that was more efficient.

The floc, as it is called—flakes or clumps—sank to the bottom, making “purer, clearer water than St. Louis residents had ever seen.” The amount of lime, the preferred treatment material, needed for a city the size of St. Louis was deemed prohibitive, but a Washington University graduate named John Wixford discovered a method using slaked lime that was more efficient.

A more rapid filtration than the slow-sand method was added to treatment in the next years, and, “By 1915,” as the article points out, “the city of St. Louis had done much more than build the nation’s largest state-of-the-art filtration facility. It had created [at Chain of Rocks] what is considered the first modern water purification plant in the United States, a facility incorporating all of the major elements of treatment technology that would be used by other municipalities around the country,” including “coagulation, sedimentation, filtration, and chlorination. Decades later, the process had been improved but followed essentially the same sequence. . . . ”

 

•  •  •

 

Curt showed me the plant, which is so large it took an hour, even using his truck, to see several chosen points among the long, shining sheets of water held in basins. He said there are typically 50 people on site, but this might include painters, carpenters, office staff, and engineering and support workers.

“The Chain of Rocks treatment plant used to be kind of a manicured parkland,” he said as we drove. “People used to take the trolley to come out to the treatment plant, walk around, have a picnic. They were free to go through all the buildings, talk to the staff, and enjoy the day. And to my knowledge, no one did anything stupid. No one spray-painted things or sabotaged, they looked. But it was cutting edge at the time too. And it was something that the city was very proud of.”

In the archive of old glass-plate photos of the plant—there was an official Water Division photographer at the turn of the century—there are also dozens of photos of the insides of insane asylums, workhouses, poor houses, jails, and orphanages.

“They were a tourist attraction,” Curt said. “So, the waterworks and the jail and the insane asylum: modern cities had these, and they were proud of them, and people would come and tour them.”

There are other technologies to disinfect water now, from the backpacker’s sippy-straw to pressurized, reverse-osmosis systems. What determines the use of this type of facility for St. Louis is scale. No other method could produce so much clean water so quickly, but it takes time, process, planning, science, technology, and chemicals.

After water comes in at the intake tower, it goes to a wet well, then to a primary pump station—a large brick building, several stories high, with watertight doors in case of river flood. In the old days, its pumps were steam engines that rose 30 feet or more to the ceiling and had their own crews. In the historical literature, two steam engines in the St. Louis waterworks were said to be the second or third-largest in the world. They had 36-ton flywheels, and one had an 85-inch piston with a 10-foot stroke. These days the pumps are much smaller, centrifugal, and electric. Twenty-seven pumps of various sizes are used in combination as needed.

The pumps lift water into four open-air “pre-sed” (sedimentation) basins that capture sand, silt, and other heavy particles. The water is collected over a weir and flows through a channel into three softening basins that look like mixing bowls the size of your house.

“We do see atrazine, which is an herbicide that farmers apply to their fields in the spring and early summer. We test daily for that, and then we adjust our treatment process—the powdered, activated carbon—to remove it and keep it within a level that’s acceptable.”

Lime that has been pulverized and baked in a kiln in Ste. Genevieve, Missouri, is added to the water in a slurry, under a large central dome, to raise the Ph-level and remove some of the minerals that cause hardness. Small particles in suspension attach to larger ones and settle out. Groaning mechanical arms spin very, very slowly on rollers to mix it all and move solids to the drain. The water rises up and is collected and sent to the treatment station.

Several treatments are done on the water, some of them simultaneous, and the water is monitored at every step in the plant and at distribution sites “to make sure all of our goals are being met in the processes,” per EPA guidelines, Curt said.

I brought up Kirkwood’s complaint that chemists of his time were unable to detect what caused bad odors and taste. Did modern chemists test for everything modern science knew might be a problem?

He said, “The number of compounds is infinite. The ones that are suspected we test for, or the state tests our source water or even our finished water to see if it exists. A lot of times when a compound becomes on the radar of possibly being a problem, EPA will have the states and utilities collect water and test for it. . . . The estrogen and endocrine-disruptors, there’s a whole family of them . . . have been tested. Sometimes you find them in trace amounts. But with the volume of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers there’s so much dilution…that many times you don’t detect it, or if you do it’s at trace amounts.

“It’s not like a lake, where you have a closed system, or an aquifer, where you had some source of contamination of your water and it’s there and you have to deal with it, and it can accumulate to a level that it’s of great concern.

“We do see atrazine, which is an herbicide that farmers apply to their fields in the spring and early summer. We test daily for that, and then we adjust our treatment process—the powdered, activated carbon—to remove it and keep it within a level that’s acceptable.”

Other small differences from previous years are also important. Instead of disinfecting only with chlorine, for instance, ammonia is also added, to form chloramine, a less reactive compound with less taste. In the distribution system, Curt says, free chlorine can allow bacterial buildup on the surfaces of pipes, because bacteria acts as a coating to protect itself. Chloramine penetrates and kills it.

The River has .3 ppm naturally-occurring fluoride; the plant doubles it. Curt said they also do “corrosion control, so the water doesn’t leach metal from the piping and plumbing, both in city pipes and in homes.”

We discussed concerns over lead in drinking water, which Curt said “is an issue of corrosive water running through pipes. Chemistry of water affects it. In Flint, Michigan, they switched suppliers, and they went from a source that treated the water so it isn’t corrosive, to producing water themselves that they didn’t practice corrosion control [on]. So it was leaching iron from their mains in the street, and then when it got into the homes it was leaching the lead from the lead service lines.”

Lead pipes, he said, are “actually part of the plumbing that the property owner owns. It’s not something that the city itself owns, so that kind of complicates how it’s addressed.”

This was not a public versus private issue, he said. “You have good-run private and good-run public, and you can have poor-run public and poor-run private. And you can just have bad decisions in there.”

After softening, water flows into and across Basin One, which provides contact time with the dark powdered carbon. Then it flows into the primary conditioner, a maze the water flows through 12-feet deep, where ferric sulfate, polymer, chlorine, and ammonia are added. One reason the water stayed brown in the old days, Curt said, is because fine particles “all have the same negative charge and repel each other, so they stay in the suspension.” The iron compound and long, manmade polymer molecules “all have positive charges, so they glom on to these [fine particles so] that gravity will pull them out of the water column.” These last two dribble from a pipe with a reddish stain.

“It’s high-tech, I tell you,” Curt said and laughed.

The treated water flows out through Basins 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6, allowing time for sedimentation of the floc and for the chlorine to disinfect. At the far end of Basin 6, more carbon can be added, and the water flows through a tunnel to the secondary maze-like conditioner, where more iron, polymer, chlorine, ammonia, and fluoride can be added. There are three more sedimentation basins, then the water enters the filter plant for its last stage of treatment.

The filter plant is nearly a thousand feet long and holds 40 rapid-sand filters on each side of the long room. Each filter is a deep concrete box filled with fine sand, two-feet deep, dredged from the Missouri River, sitting on a bed of inert glacial gravel and rocks from Iowa. All this lies on concrete “curbs” tied together with perforated metal plates to let water through.

Curt explained the difference between Kirkwood’s “slow-sand” filtration system and today’s. “[Slow-sand] removes a lot; it’s a very good treatment, but you can’t create the volume of water that’s needed. You would need hundreds of acres of slow-sand filterage, whereas you can get the same production on a smaller footprint with the rapid-sand filterage.”

In both methods, water flows down through sand on a gravel bed. In slow-sand filters, however, operators had to skim the sand of impurities and replace it often as it clogged with mud. In the rapid-sand method, the flow of water is reversed every three days or so to flush out floc and particles. In this way, the “media”—sand, gravel, rocks—can last 10 to 20 years, at which point it has become a soft concrete.

The potable water is monitored for turbidity by an optical system. Each shift also collects a sample through each filter in service to check it manually and confirm that measuring devices are functioning. The finished water goes to the covered clear-water basin.

Curt explained that each plant has a clear well, which gives the water extra contact time for disinfection and provides reservoirs to bring water into the distribution system to the city. These and other reservoirs and tanks around the city help regulate water pressure and “act as buffers for peak demand” or in case of a “large main break or fire that uses a lot of water.” It also allows for cheaper production.

“We pump twice as much at night and on weekends as during normal hours of the work week,” Curt said. “Electrical rates are cheaper at night and in off hours, and the electrical company doesn’t have to build the infrastructure to meet instantaneous demands of a system.”

 

•  •  •

 

There is a preoccupation, in old texts about waterworks, with how many gallons, per capita, a system could deliver, per day, to its city, whether it was ancient Rome, Victorian London, or Quincy, Illinois. (St. Louis produces, on average, 355 gallons per person—a misleading figure, because industrial use is factored in.)

“You can see our source water,” Curt says. “We’re not hurting for water. And we have plenty of capacity to meet our needs. Our story is unique as far as a lot of systems in the country. There’s others along the river that could draw as much, but available extra capacity: I think we rank up there, because we could produce up to 360,000,000 gallons per day. We could take on a lot more customers than other communities could.”

Curt [Skouby, Director of Public Utilities for the City of St. Louis] laughed when I reminded him that a pamphlet from the Water Division’s 1956 Diamond Jubilee says it cost a penny to deliver 50 gallons that year. But the cost now is just 11.8 cents per 50 gallons, only 1.8 percent over inflation from 65 years ago.

Three-hundred sixty million gallons per day was exactly the figure quoted for the Romans at the height of their power, but “it’s apples and oranges,” Curt said, starting with the fact that our water is clean, even with higher population, agriculture on an industrial scale, and industry. Americans probably bathe more often, he said, “but we also have water-saving devices like showerheads, toilets, dishwashers, and clothes washers in our homes,” as opposed to open-main fountains and sewers.

Curt laughed when I reminded him that a pamphlet from the Water Division’s 1956 Diamond Jubilee says it cost a penny to deliver 50 gallons that year. But the cost now is just 11.8 cents per 50 gallons, only 1.8 percent over inflation from 65 years ago.

 

•  •  •

 

Curt and I discussed potential problems for St. Louis’ water future. He acknowledged the danger of another New Madrid earthquake but believes “that’s on a several-hundred year cycle, and probably won’t happen in our lifetime.” Other natural forces, such as freezing conditions that create ice dams, can make supply somewhat unpredictable.

“Terrorism is always a concern—domestic, foreign, disgruntled employees—these are all things that the industry and us and the regulators all keep in mind and try to do what we can to reduce the risk, and the impact too,” he said.

The EPA and “equivalent state organizations,” as well as Fish and Wildlife, and the Safe Drinking Water Act, would help protect against “environmental aspects,” such as farm runoff and other pollutants.

I asked if there were any similarities to the problems on, say, the Rio Grande, where bottom users are denied water by those at the top.

“How the River is managed by the Army Corps of Engineers is always of interest to us,” he said. “Starting west of Missouri you have a different set of water rights and laws. . . .

“We’re very concerned that the Missouri River upstream does not get tapped and diverted for other water-scarce areas of the country and then cut back on the amount of water that’s available for us. Because here at the bottom end of the Missouri River, if it’s diverted for other uses upstream that means you have less flow, you have less dilutions of the contaminants in the water; you can have more algae growth and deterioration of water quality.

Curt Skouby said, “St. Louis could easily support [the water needs of] the population of any of these cities, or any probably two of these cities,” struggling with water scarcity. I was startled. “You could supply water to a couple of LAs?” I said.

“And that has been my observation: that when there’s a drought the people who have the water upstream are very reluctant to let go of the water to those downstream. [I]ntake structures are designed to work within that water level that [the Army Corps] maintain, and we would hate for it all of a sudden to have to re-do our infrastructure to accommodate something different.”

I came out with it: Is St. Louis the city of the future, due to its water source?

“Potentially, we could be,” he said. “We’re centrally located in the country. We’re on some major waterways; moving stuff, bulk-wise, with barges is very efficient. We’re an ice-free port that’s most northern; we have a lot of railroads coming through. We have an abundance of water. It’s a good place to live.”

In fact, he said, “St. Louis could easily support [the water needs of] the population of any of these cities, or any probably two of these cities,” struggling with water scarcity.

I was startled. “You could supply water to a couple of LAs?” I said.

“I would think,” he said. “You go to the Army Corps of Engineers and you look at how much flow of water is going by, we could in theory pull it out, and eventually the water ends up back in the river. It’s not like an aquifer that you deplete.”

 

•  •  •

 

There are other things than water when it comes to choosing a place to live. My friend who lives in LA and I compared identical 88-degree days this week. He was by the pool, perfectly comfortable. I was trying to run not far from the Mississippi, in the humidity, feeling like I was in the Borneo jungle.

But water is ultimately more important than anything but air. One wonders, in the Anthropocene, as temperatures rise, farming zones move north, and potable water becomes scarcer, what more St. Louis and other big-river cities might become.

Subscribe to our "Mixed Issue" email newsletter!