Missouri American Water Co. is currently involved in the “environmental permitting” phase of its project to construct a water-storage reservoir south of Joplin, company officials said last week.

The gathering of data could stretch out over the next two years or longer, said Matt Barnhart, senior operations manager for the utility, mainly because the effort itself can be so unpredictable at times.

“You just don’t know,” he said with a shrug. “Something could pop up and surprise you. If it does … would it impact the timeline? Maybe. You just don’t know.”

As it stands, Missouri American Water and its engineering team are gathering data via field tests that will eventually be used in the environmental impact statement. Continued findings are prompting small tweaks to the 1,500-acre reservoir’s overall boundary — which has not yet been pinpointed, Barnhart said — to be located just south of George Washington Carver National Monument in northern Newton County.

For example, Barnhart said, when the company was in the planning stages to build a new plant north of Kansas City, field studies determined that a stand of trees at the proposed building site was a key mating-breeding ground for a specific bat species; thus plans were reconfigured to move the building site far from the trees. In another water-related project, construction of a well near Branson had to be delayed for three weeks until an animal’s breeding season had ended, Barnhart said.

“The main thing these studies are looking at is how the (reservoir) will impact the environment, which is what (we) care about — we’re into water, so we really, really care about the environment,” Barnhart said. “You have to take a look at everything to make sure you’re not permanently damaging something that can’t be moved or re-created or resolved.”

Regulators want to know what the reservoir could mean to Shoal Creek, which supplies 90% of Joplin’s drinking water. Specifically, they want to know what effects the body of water might have on seven species listed as endangered or threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: two freshwater mussels, three species of bats, as well as the blind Ozark cavefish and the blind cave crayfish.

Before construction can begin, Missouri American will first need an Army Corps of Engineers permit. The Corps will conduct a detailed study addressing all environmental factors and proving the need for the reservoir. It also will include public meetings with review and input from stakeholders, such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, the Missouri Department of Transportation, the Missouri Public Service Commission and Newton County.

In the end, Barnhart said, the project is all about drinking water. As it stands now, the Joplin metro area’s population swells to about 250,000 during a workday. Experts forecast double-digit growth for the area — 220,000 permanent residents in Jasper and Newton counties by 2030, according to a Missouri Department of Natural Resource study. According to both Missouri American and the Tri-State Water Resource Coalition, Joplin’s long-term water supply won’t be able to meet the community’s water needs. Currently, the company supplies 12.2 million gallons of water per day, via 535 miles of water mains, to customers in Jasper County and thousands more in Newton County, as far south as Racine. During peak times, that demand grows to 18 million to 19 million gallons each day.

Because Shoal Creek is “volatile” during drought conditions, Barnhart said, the area has come close to having mandatory water conservation measures put into place — three times since 2012. Such measures would affect “all nonessential water usage, and that lists the types of things people do not usually think about, like car washes and laundromats,” he said.

Should drought conditions persist, it would start affecting more important areas of the community, such as industrial plants and businesses, Barnhart said — “and that’s jobs.”

Because so many “straws” are sucking water from Shoal Creek, water levels drop to dangerous levels. Sure, Barnhart said, those levels will eventually rise again. That process, however, can take as long as seven months. The reservoir, once in place, would store drinking water until it’s needed, flowing additional gallons into Shoal Creek to raise water back to healthy levels.

If all goes as planned, construction could begin as early as 2023 and be completed by 2026.

“This reservoir is not a wish. It’s not something to be built for fun,” Barnhart said. “The reservoir is being built for sustainability, our economic future and our vitality — to sustain life. It’s our drinking water.”

Timeline

Here is the latest timeline for the Missouri American Water’s reservoir:

• 2019-2022: Design and permitting work.

• 2019-2023: Property owner coordination.

• 2021-2024: Acquisition of land.

• 2023-2026: Reservoir construction.

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