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'If there's no water, there's no future' -- work is underway to identify new water sources for the region down the road

A sign at Fellows Lake urges people to protect their drinking water. (Photograph taken March 16, 2023)
Michele Skalicky
A sign at Fellows Lake urges people to protect their drinking water. (Photograph taken March 16, 2023)

In this segment of KSMU's Sense of Community Series on the City of Springfield's comprehensive plan Forward SGF, we take a look at the city's drinking water supply.

Correction: The director of Water Operations for City Utilities is Bob Wilson.

In the city’s comprehensive plan, Forward SGF, under “Infrastructure and Community Facilities,” is a section titled “Protect Drinking Water Supply.”

Water is something most people take for granted. You turn on the tap – it’s there. You turn your washer on, and it fills up.

But there are people working hard behind the scenes to make sure the City of Springfield has safe drinking water and an adequate supply to last well into the future.

Two of them are Bob Wilson, director of Water Operations for Springfield City Utilities, and Roddy Rogers, executive director of SWMO Water. The sole purpose of Rogers’ organization is to ensure an adequate and sustainable water supply for southwest Missouri.

Wilson said, currently, Springfield gets its water from a variety of sources. But its primary source is Fellows Lake north of the city.

“We also have McDaniel Lake. We utilize the James River and the Fulbright Spring, which has been providing water to the community since the 1880s," said Wilson.

Springfield also has an allocation and the rights to pump water from Stockton Lake. There’s an intake station at the lake and a 32-mile pipeline that allows water to be directed to Fellows or McDaniel Lakes.

Wilson said they seldom have to take water from Stockton Lake. But during extremely dry periods, they can supplement the city’s supply with water from the reservoir.

“In periods of drought, such as last year, we had a pretty dry period and our local reserves were being depleted more quickly than normal because there wasn't rainfall to replenish them," said Wilson. "And we supplemented the local water resources with water from Stockton."

Roddy Rogers knows that, with climate change, periods of drought in the region might increase. He pointed to areas out west where lakes shriveled to a fraction of their original size. That’s why, he said, it’s important to plan ahead "and have those resources in place to be able to have the resiliency because water is so vital not only to human health, but our economic health. And that's our task — to make sure that we have enough."

Fellows Lake near Springfield (photo taken March 16, 2023)
Michele Skalicky
Fellows Lake near Springfield (photo taken March 16, 2023)

Rogers said SWMO Water is working to identify water sources for the future for a 16-county region in southwest Missouri. He’s optimistic the area’s current water supplies will be adequate for another 25 to 30 years, but he said plans need to be in place for when that changes.

“So, that’s what we’re working on is getting that next water source for the future," said Rogers. "And it's probably — we have really high hopes for getting another allocation from Stockton. So, Springfield is a part of that effort. They did it before on their own. Now, we're doing it as a region because we're all going to need the same water. It makes sense for us to cooperate."

Other reservoirs he said the area might draw water from in the future are Table Rock and Pomme de Terre Lakes.

Wilson said Springfield residents have done a good job conserving water, and he’s seen that reflected in lowered demand. CU said its customers can save water by watering on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday if their address ends in an even number and on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday if their address ends in an odd number. Some other things you can do: Plant native plants that require less water, check your faucet and pipes for leaks, use a broom rather than a hose to clean off driveways, limit shower time, and turn off the water when you brush your teeth.

Rogers said those things can have a significant impact, but “you can’t conserve your way out of the next water source.”

Water quality is another issue addressed in Forward SGF.

Forward SGF identifies green infrastructure initiatives as effective ways to achieve the goals of the Clean Water Act and that ultimately save sanitary sewer ratepayers money.

Wilson said projects like the naturalization of parts of Fassnight and South Creeks and plans to daylight and naturalize Jordan Creek in Springfield can not only help minimize flooding, but can help improve water quality.

“I think that those practices that help limit runoff, that help water percolate into the soil, that minimize the impact of those flooding events, are all wonderful practices that help us in the long run," said Wilson.

Forward SGF also addresses failing septic systems in rural Greene County, which it said need to be addressed. Those were identified, the plan states, as a threat to drinking water quality due to the karst topography in the area. Those should continue to be removed when possible, it said, as new sanitary sewer customers connect to the City of Springfield’s system.

Other ideas for protecting the city’s drinking water supplies include encouraging the planting of cover crops, land purchase for conservation and enhanced water protection management plans.

And educating people about protecting the area’s drinking water supply continues – even at Fellows Lake. Biking trails have been added alongside the area’s hiking trails, and the Watershed Committee of the Ozarks has taken ownership of the lake’s marina. That organization was formed in the 1980s to protect the region’s watersheds and to educate people about ways to minimize pollution that ends up in area waterways.

Roddy Rogers and Bob Wilson agree what’s happening at Fellows Lake is a good thing.

"I think a lot of what's going on here at Fellows and getting more people out here and drawing attention to 'this is our water source' is helping," said Rogers.

"There's about 1600 acres of land around the lake — buffer land that's used and currently is used to protect the water quality primarily," said Wilson. "And it's being used for outdoor recreation now. And, as Roddy mentioned, it's really to bring awareness and also demonstrate that it doesn't have to be an either/or — that we can utilize the resource in a multitude of ways, and people can enjoy it. It doesn't harm the water quality, and it lets people know that this is a water supply. So, you know, 'you love it, you'll protect it' is kind of our hope."

Rogers says it’s critical that we all work to protect the area’s water supply. As he said, “if there’s no water, there’s no future.”

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Michele Skalicky has worked at KSMU since the station occupied the old white house at National and Grand. She enjoys working on both the announcing side and in news and has been the recipient of statewide and national awards for news reporting. She likes to tell stories that make a difference. Michele enjoys outdoor activities, including hiking, camping and leisurely kayaking.