Five things to know about the Missouri River and Kansas City’s drinking water

Vicki Richmond and Larry O’Donnell of Healthy Rivers Partnership are passionate about keeping the Missouri River a healthy and vibrant water source for Kansas City, and educating citizens about the river as Kansas City’s lifeblood.

To that end, they teamed up with Kansas City Water Services officials for a boat tour Wednesday of key water and wastewater facilities that convert the river to clean drinking water and then treat the flushed wastewater before it goes back to the river.

Five takeaways from the tour:

1. The Missouri River is Kansas City’s drinking water source. It’s quite a process to turn the Big Muddy into tap water. The Missouri River is perhaps the third muddiest river in the world, O’Donnell said, after the Colorado and the Nile. As many as 10 million people get their drinking water from the Missouri River.

2. Kansas City has high-quality drinking water, without the taste or smell drawbacks that some water companies experience. The intake from the river is north of North Kansas City, off Missouri 9. The water treatment plant is 90 years old but in great shape for its age, according to Mike Klender, plant manager for drinking water.

The water starts out a dirty brown but is cleaned with a variety of chemicals that separate out the silt and other contaminants. Filters are also used, including a bed of sand, which is “a great natural filter,” said water quality educator Lara Isch. The entire process takes 18 to 24 hours.

Kansas City’s water will never corrode the pipes, as notoriously happened with lead pipes in Michigan. “We will never be Flint,” Isch said.

3. The Missouri River is an abundant water source, so Kansas City won’t go begging for water like some California cities, O’Donnell said. Some western cities would like to figure out how to divert Missouri River water westward. Instead, O’Donnell recommends that residents “go where the water is” and stop moving to “where the desert is.”

Because water is so abundant, O’Donnell said, “we have a tendency to not pay attention to it.”

However, that may be changing. Klender said Kansas City water customers have started to conserve on water consumption. The water treatment plant now averages about 105 million gallons processed daily, down from 120 million gallons per day some years ago. In summer, as consumption rises, the plant treats a peak of about 207 million gallons daily.

4. The wastewater treatment process is integral to the river’s health. It sends water from Kansas City’s drains or toilets back into the river, but cleaner than what came out of the river. As with most of the nation’s rivers, the Missouri River is much cleaner than before the Clean Water Act of 1972, Isch said.

5. Don’t take the river for granted.

“Green beans don’t come from a can. They come from the garden,” Richmond said. “Water doesn’t come from the tap. It comes from the river.”

While the river is a lot cleaner than it was in the 1970s, Isch noted that all sorts of trash, plus yard waste and agricultural, industrial and environmental contaminants, still wind up in the river. The more that those can be kept out of the river, the better.

“Don’t litter. Cigarette butts, too,” O’Donnell counseled, saying all the stuff that winds up in the river complicates the process to turn it into clean drinking water.

Lynn Horsley: 816-226-2058, @LynnHorsley