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On Fire for Water: Retiring Gail Melgren has worked to secure the region’s water supply

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For over 10 years, Gail Melgren has been committed to a singular purpose: ensuring the people of southwest Missouri have access to water for years to come.

Effective April 1, Melgren retired from her post as founding executive director of the Tri-State Water Resource Coalition and its related organization, the Southwest Missouri Joint Municipal Water Utility Commission.

Members say she’ll be missed.

“We’re very, very thankful for Gail’s service to us,” said Skip Schaller, utilities superintendent for the city of Monett. “She has done a really good job to get us to this point.”

Hired in 2010, Melgren was the first executive director of the commission, which was chartered in 2003 but previously run by the president of its board of directors, the late Bob Nichols, a retired engineer.

Melgren’s focus in her role has been to secure a future water supply for the region. The commission’s members are communities and utilities from throughout southwest Missouri, and their goal is to make sure water remains available to residents, businesses and industries.

“Gail has effectively shepherded the long process of identifying and acquiring future water supply for the region, and the development of infrastructure to deliver that water to member communities,” said Matt Barnhart, the coalition’s board president and operations director for Missouri American Water’s southwest region, in the announcement of Melgren’s retirement.

Replacing Melgren is a veteran of the organization and a registered professional engineer, Roddy Rogers. Rogers has worked more than two decades at City Utilities of Springfield, managing aspects of the city’s drinking water system and water resources projects.

With his experience, Rogers has a reputation for being the person with the answers.

“If there’s anyone in the room with more technical expertise than Roddy, I sure don’t know who that is,” said Andrew Nelson, Builds Department administrator with the city of Republic. “He’s definitely the guy everyone looks to in the room – ‘What does this mean?’ ‘What’s your recommendation?’ He’s been part of the water discussion for a long time.”

The commission’s charge
The work of the SWMO Joint Municipal Water Utility Commission is transparent – literally. The group’s focus is on ensuring a water supply sufficient for the region.

It’s also somewhat invisible, outside of government offices. It’s natural for people to turn on the spigot and wash their hands without ever wondering where the water comes from.

For some places, like Monett, groundwater is what comes through the pipes. That’s water pumped from underground aquifers.

“One of the nice things about groundwater is it’s clean, for the most part,” Schaller said. “We can just clean it and put it out in the system.”

Springfield’s water is surface water. It comes from Fellows and McDaniel lakes and does not have to be pumped from underground.

The commission is working toward requesting an allocation of water from Stockton Lake, a much larger resource than Springfield has currently.

Stockton Lake is administered by the Army Corps of Engineers, and for over a decade, the commission has been engaged in the long process of gaining permission to access it.

“We’re a long way down the road,” Melgren said of the process.

She noted the commission has undertaken a number of lengthy technical and environmental studies.

Rogers explained, “We started by doing the technical studies to determine how much water do we have, how much is available, and what do we need – what is the gap.”

That gap need is determined through a collaborative effort by the Corps of Engineers, member communities and other stakeholders.

It’s a process Rogers is familiar with; he helped to complete it over the course of a decade with City Utilities, which was granted an allocation from Stockton Lake in 1993. Two years later, the drought of 1995-96 occurred.

“We used it those first two years a lot,” he said.

Droughts followed in 2000, 2006-07 and 2012, and CU was ready for them. The commission hopes to do the same for communities throughout the region.

Melgren said the commission’s analysis is almost complete.

“At this point it’s looking like we may wrap it up this year,” she said.

Federal consideration would follow with the Corps of Engineers and then the assistant secretary of the Army, who makes the final determination, and once an allocation is granted, infrastructure to move the water can be begin to be built.

The allocation would cover a projected demand gap, which by 2060 is 12 million gallons per day for Springfield, based on average usage, and cumulatively 39 million gallons per day across the SWMO Water region.

Construction costs for the infrastructure to carry the water are estimated at just over $1 billion, with roughly $50 million in annual debt service and operation and maintenance costs that would be shared by users.

Melgren said such regional initiatives are more common in larger metropolitan areas.

“It’s becoming a useful paradigm in states like Missouri because it allows communities to harness their resources and share in the investment, share in the benefit, in a way that individual communities could not manage them on their own,” she said.

Even in times of drought, most people aren’t overly concerned about not having water for drinking, flushing and bathing.

However, a supply of clean water is not assured, and cities throughout the nation and the world have experienced shortfalls. Notable examples are Cape Town, South Africa, which nearly ran out of water for its 4 million residents in 2017, and Atlanta, Georgia, which has a population growth outpacing its supply of surface water.

Melgren said the SWMO Joint Municipal Water Utility Commission aims to make sure that doesn’t happen here.

Survival of business
Water is essential to industry, according to Melgren and Rogers.

“Populations are growing and the density is growing, and the aquifer must be used sustainably,” Melgren said.

Rogers noted water is a vital economic driver.

“Water is the common thread to life, especially for the economy,” he said.

CU has a development department that answers questions for businesses wanting to locate here.

“One of the first questions they ask is, ‘What’s your water source?’” he said.

Melgren said the region has water-intensive industries, including agriculture and food processing. She noted Tyson Foods is a major employer in Monett, and the city’s water use is 80% industrial.

“It goes to local businesses, and without that water, those jobs go away,” she said. “With it, Monett has been able to grow and thrive. Tyson’s been a big part of that because there’s plenty of water.”

But schools and hospitals also use a lot of water. Rogers said CoxHealth, Mercy Hospital and Missouri State University are three of the top consumers of water in Springfield.

“When we develop additional water supply to serve communities for the long term, we’re ensuring economic health, sustainability and jobs,” Melgren said. “Water equals jobs; it equals economic vitality and growth in communities.”

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