St. Louis water chief says major main break reflects need to boost investments in system

ST. LOUIS — City water officials acknowledged Friday that some isolated neighborhoods just south of Forest Park have experienced reduced water pressure in connection to a major water main break that occurred weeks ago and temporarily closed Highway 40 (Interstate 64), after flooding the roadway.

Curt Skouby, the city’s public utilities director, said the challenges in the Dogtown area stem, in part, from its high elevation within the city — which naturally makes it harder to pump water to.

Even so, the city’s Water Division has reached some temporary solutions since the break on May 12, such as rerouting water to that area from higher-pressure parts of its system. But longer-term fixes are still a ways off — and have no defined time range — since the specialized parts needed to repair the massive 60-inch water main aren’t ones that can be plucked “off the shelf,” said Skouby.

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He says the bigger challenge, though, is that the city urgently needs to upgrade aging water pipes, like the one that broke — and lacks the money to do it.

“This is probably more to do with aging infrastructure than anything,” Skouby said.

That’s why the city water system is seeking its first rate increases in more than a decade, which could boost water bills for typical residential users by around $10 per month.

“Long term, we need some investment in our system,” said Skouby. “(Rate increases) are just not popular to do, but we’re at the point where it has to be done.”

Skouby said that city officials are pursuing some outside sources of public funding to help with its targeted investments, but noted that such funds are “finite” — meaning city water users should brace for an increase.

In future funding debates, Skouby said changes to rates could try “to avoid the sticker shock” associated with the city’s current predicament — where a relatively large increase is sought all at once, after years of static bills.

While the current funding push proceeds, the water pressure issues around Dogtown already seem to have ebbed in the time since the recent main break.

People at bars, restaurants and residential porches throughout the neighborhood said that any water issues were minimal or had been resolved relatively quickly, after the incident — barely amounting to an annoyance, if that.

In one yard, resident Sara Heisel had to adjust the position of her garden’s sprinkler by hand, since she said the reduced water pressure meant it couldn’t arc back and forth on its own, like normal. She added that she wouldn’t mind paying the city’s targeted rate increase, if it meant staving off issues of water reliability in the future.

“It can really throw you for a loop if you need to go to work and you can’t take a shower,” she said.

DEMOGRAPHIC CHALLENGE: St. Louis was one of the nation’s slowest-growing metro areas over the past decade. Jim Gallagher argues that we should worry more about quality of life, but David Nicklaus counters that the area can’t prosper without growth.