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Cape suffers major water main break

A county highway department tanker truck was filled with water in Jackson on Oct. 4 and driven to Saint Francis Medical center to resupply its water tower when a major water main broke in Cape Girardeau. Submitted photo

The entire City of Cape Girardeau went under a boil-water advisory for most of last week after a 14-inch water main broke Monday afternoon. During the boil water advisory, Cape residents were told not consume tap water unless they boiled it and let it cool.

As water poured down a hill like a waterfall and ran like a river down Highway 177 into storm sewers, the water pressure in the system dropped, and Cape Girardeau turned to its neighbor, Jackson, for help.

Jackson opened a valve connecting the two water systems, and Jackson water flowed from Jackson’s east water tower into Cape Girardeau until the water in the tower reached a dangerously low level.

This additional water flow into the Cape Girardeau system helped buoy the water pressure in the western and northern parts of Cape which are next to Jackson.

The water valve and connection between Jackson and Cape were the result of brainstorming between the Jackson Board of Aldermen and the Cape Girardeau City Council following the devastating tornado that ripped through the middle of Jackson back in 2003.

The two governing bodies at that time had occasional joint meetings, and this idea came out of one of those joint meetings, recalled Kent Peetz, Jackson’s Public Works director. “After the tornado, we asked, ‘How can we harden our system and make it more disaster proof?’”

The solution came by way of a $56,000 grant to connect the two water systems with a shut-off valve near Old Cape Road in Jackson. The project was started in 2005.

Under the mutual aid agreement, if an emergency strikes that causes one city to need the other’s water, the public works director or city administrator can authorize the valve to be opened.

On Monday night, Oct. 3, Jackson received such a call from Cape. It was explained that at 4:30 that afternoon, a 14-inch water main had failed near Bertling Street and Hwy. 177, a short distance from Cape’s water plant in the northeastern part of the city.

As water poured from the break for hours, water pressure fell throughout Cape’s system. When that happens, there is an opportunity for dirt and bacteria to enter the water system.

A boil-water advisory was first issued for portions of Cape east of I-55. By Monday night, the entire city was put under a precautionary boil-water advisory that remained in effect until Friday.

Jackson’s east water tower was nearly full of water when the valve was opened at 9:30 Monday night, and city officials monitored the water level as it drained into Cape’s system.

“It was the first time it [the valve between the two water systems] has ever been tested,” Peetz said. “It worked as it was expected.”

Pumps tried to refill the east water tower, but they could not keep up with the outflow of water.

By 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, the water level in the east tower had dropped to “dangerously low levels” according to Peetz. With just 4 feet of water remaining in the 30-foot tall bowl, the valve was closed so the tank could refill. It takes 21 to 30 hours to fill an empty water tower.

By the time the water tower was full, it was no longer needed. Repair crews had worked day and night, and repaired the water main by 3 p.m. Tuesday. (The break was blamed on ground shifting due to the drought.)

Jackson provided Cape with about 100,000 gallons of water during the crisis. The agreement between the cities stipulates that one city should pay the other for its water; however, Peetz said the bill would come to less than $400, and with Cape being in “dire straits,” Jackson may not ask for payment. It may be looked upon as just helping a neighbor in need.

Jackson also provided water to Saint Francis Medical Center in Cape Girardeau to supplement its own water supply tank. A Cape County water tanker truck filled up at Jackson’s water plant and transported the water to Saint Francis on Tuesday afternoon.

Cape residents experienced low water pressure and some who lived at higher elevations may have lost water service altogether.

Cape residents were encouraged to conserve water until 9 a.m. Thursday, when water pressure had been restored. Jackson residents were asked to conserve water while Jackson water was flowing into Cape Monday night and Tuesday morning.

Cape city staff collected water samples and had them tested at Environmental Analysis South in Jackson. These tests take 24 hours to assess.

The first round of initial results came back on Thursday at 4 p.m., and showed that the water was free from contaminants. A second sampling was taken on Thursday and final results were reported about 3 p.m. Friday afternoon. The final tests verified

Cape’s water to be clean and safe, so the boil water advisory was then lifted.

Gregory Dullum has worked for The Cash-Book Journal for more than 25 years. Prior to becoming the editor in May 2017, he was production manager, circulation manager and reporter. Before moving to Cape Girardeau in 1988, he was editor of the Saint Louis Park Sailor, a weekly community newspaper in suburban Minneapolis, MN. A native of Minnesota, he returned there after graduating with distinction in 1978 from Ambassador College in Pasadena, CA, with a degree in mass communications. His wife, Marie, whom he met in college, is a native of Zalma, a small town in southeast Missouri. They have two grown daughters and five grandchildren. Gregory may be reached at

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