Galesburg's water supply at risk from flooding

John R. Pulliam and Stephen Geinosky

Although a levee break in Gulfport Tuesday morning temporarily eased worries at the city of Galesburg’s water facility in Oquawka, the crisis has not passed and Galesburg residents are still being asked to conserve water voluntarily until further notice.

“That’s (the levee break) the reason the river has leveled off for now,” Galesburg Public Works Director Larry Cox said. “They are predicting it to rise again.”

Cox said the Mississippi River is expected to crest late Tuesday, about a foot or one-half foot above its current level. Making things somewhat difficult for Galesburg officials is that official water levels are measured just upstream — at Keithsburg — and downstream — Gladstone — but not at Oquawka. The National Weather Service reported the river stood at 22.23 feet at Gladstone at 6 a.m., with a crest of 22.78 feet expected later. The previous record crest of 21.5 feet in 1993 has already been surpassed.

As to the possibility of mandatory water conservation, Cox said at 8:30 a.m., “Basically it’s down to wait and see. It’s down to inches. We have temporary sandbag walls built in our facilities. We have water coming in our buildings through cracks.”

Cox said sump pumps are being used to try to keep the water levels inside the buildings at bay.

“We can handle a few more inches in rise in the river,” he said.

There are three water division buildings in Oquawka. One houses the Ranney Collector well.

“If river water goes directly into the well, that would be one reason we would shut down (the Oquawka water facility),” Cox said.

He said the second of three circumstances that could cause the city to have to switch to its two wells in Galesburg — which can only produce one-third of the city’s normal daily usage — is if water damages a back-up generator now being used. Cox said Ameren has shut down power to the facility, which forced the use of the generator.

Average daily water usage in Galesburg is 5.5 million gallons, Cox said. Galesburg has a reserve of 11 million gallons.

Finally, “The control building has the electrical controls that run the wells,” Cox said. “If water would get too high in there, we would have to shut down.”

The Oquawka facility, which also provides water to Knoxville, East Galesburg, Little York and Abingdon, has never been shut down since the pipeline was built in the late 1950s.

Residents of the other communities receiving Galesburg water also are under a voluntary water conservation order. In fact, after the Henry C. Hill Correctional Center, Knoxville and Abingdon are the largest customers for Galesburg water.

“Knoxville is a little different because they still have their own wells,” Cox said. He said East Galesburg and Abingdon no longer have their own wells.

The voluntary water conservation order means residents should limit watering lawns, gardens and trees. Residents are also asked not to wash their cars.

“You can still use a swimming pool, but we ask you not to fill pools,” Cox said.

He said if residents have to use washing machines and dishwashers, they should make sure to do full loads.

If mandatory water conservation becomes necessary, “The only business that would be required to shut down would be car washes,” Cox said. Anyone watering lawns, gardens, etc., would then be subject to a fine for violating a city ordinance.

Cox said he is in contact with Galesburg water division officials in Oquawka. He said there may be a news conference later in the day to update the situation.

Meanwhile, some people are taking precautions in case water supplies become limited. Dave Rasmussen, store director at Hy-Vee on East Main Street, said shoppers are scooping up bottled water.

“Every cart I’ve seen go through the checkstand this morning has had water in it,” Rasmussen said. He said the situation was much the same at the store on National Boulevard. The directors of the two Galesburg stores put in a call to Hy-Vee’s corporate offices for help.

“We’ve got a truckload of water coming from our warehouse,” Rasmussen said. “It should be here by mid to late afternoon.”

Steve Spicher, assistant manager of Econofoods on East Main Street, said sales of bottled water are strong there, but he noted that’s always the case in the summer.

“We have a good supply,” he said. “I always have a couple of pallets of bottled water on hand. I suppose sales will pick up if mandatory conservation is ordered.”

Fire Chief John Cratty said Monday that procedures are in place to use water from Lake Storey and Lake Rice should there be a major fire. Water could also be brought in by tanker trucks from area volunteer fire departments.

“This is not a panic situation,” Cratty said Monday. “We are not giving this information out to scare people. We are asking people to take some positive steps, so if flood waters affect do affect us, we will have a reserve to work off of.”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has offered to bring bottled water to Galesburg, if needed.

Cox said if the Oquawka facility is shut down, it will take a few days to gear back up.

“There will be some time to get a good test on the well,” he said. “We’ll chlorinate the well and test it. It could take a number of days.”

John R. Pulliam can be reached at jpulliam@register-mail.com.