Water and Light
Your trusted source of water and electricity for over 100 years.
Download the centennial report for more detailed information
In 1904, Columbia voters decided to form a municipal utility in order to ensure public control of the city's water and power supplies. Public control, it was felt, would guarantee quality electricity and clean water, while keeping rates low. Today, Columbia Water and Light has not only met these goals but has been able to reinvest money into the community. During the late 1800s, Columbia was suffering the effects of not having an electric and water supplier. The inadequate supply of water was beginning to take its toll on the community. In 1888 the buildings on the northwest corner of Broadway and Eighth Street were destroyed by fire. In 1892, lack of water lead to the complete destruction of Academic Hall at the University of Missouri. State Legislators informed Columbia that the University would be moved if an adequate water supply for fighting fires was not insured.
The threat of losing the University prompted a group of citizens to form the Columbia Water and Light Company. The site for the power plant and dam was Hinkson Creek, on the east side of where the Stephens golf course is today. A small steam engine room was built on the banks of the creek to provide electricity. A dam was constructed and the impounded surface water was pumped into the city.
Unfortunately, there were still problems to contend with. Electricity was a luxury that only a few wealthy citizens could afford. The water supply was found to be contaminated and had very low pressure. Citizens were not happy with the situation and pursued an election to approve the formation of a public water and light utility. People wanted access to cheaper electricity, and they wanted safe water with adequate pressure.
Voters approved the measure to have a municipal utility in 1904 and they sanctioned a $100,000 bond. Two-thirds of the money went to buy the Water and Light Company, with one third for new construction. The power plant was moved to its current location on Business Loop 70 and two new deep wells were dug. The newly formed utility was run by a board of citizens.
The early years of Water and Light were spent developing the utility and reducing rates. As more people had access to electricity and new electrical appliances hit the market, demand went up. Extra revenue from this increased use was reinvested back into the utility through capital improvements. Therefore, consumers benefited from their investment in a public power system. The more electricity was used, the more reliable the system became.
Columbia's water system also saw improvements. Deep wells were dug in order to combat contamination problems. A water tower was built on Walnut Street in 1945, enabling storage of one million gallons of water. The increased water pressure from the new tower, along with the placement of a greater number of fire hydrants throughout the city, provided Columbia stronger defenses against the ravages of fire.
Profits were not only used for the infrastructure. They were returned to Columbians through rate reductions. Within thirty years, Columbia Water and Light cut rates in half. Today, electricity is one of the few things in town that costs the same as it did in the 1930s.
Community development was not one of the original goals of having a municipal utility, but since the early years, Water and Light has been an integral part of the city's revenue stream. Since 1917, the city has received a gross receipts tax from the Water and Light Department. This tax helps supplement the city's general revenue fund for services. The advantage to citizens is that other taxes like those on personal property can remain low.
During the depression, Water and Light funds were used to build the Municipal Building and the fire and police facility. The construction helped stimulate a depressed economy by putting people to work. Since Water and Light funds were used, raising taxes to pay for the project was not necessary. Water and Light resources were also contributed to the Municipal Airport, remodeling of the old library, land for the Cancer Hospital, the Armory, sewers, pools and parks. The advantage of having a municipal utility is that extra funds generated by the utility are invested back into the community, rather than going to a few private investors.
Today, the effects of having a well-run municipal utility are still felt throughout the community. With money being reinvested in the system for almost a hundred years, we have a power plant we can count on. It brings us reliable power at one of the lowest rates in the country. The plant stays environmentally friendly by burning low-sulfur coal, which keeps the air cleaner. Columbia's water now comes from a series of shallow wells in the Missouri River alluvial plain. This means that the water goes through a natural filtration process and is constantly replenished. After water is softened and filtered at the water treatment plant, it goes to the pump stations and then to the consumer. Recent expansions at the plant enable water to be pumped at a rate of 32 million gallons a day. Water is stored in three water towers that provide capacity for peak flows and fire fighting. Our water system enables Columbia to have one of the highest ISO ratings in the state, which saves customers money on fire insurance.
Customers also benefit from free energy conservation programs like energy audits and free shade trees. Other energy programs for customers include low interest loans for increasing energy efficiency and load control discounts.
Along with offering electricity and water at reasonable rates, the Water and Light Department also runs a short line railroad. In the early 1980s, Norfolk Southern decided that the spur of railroad leading into Columbia was too expensive to maintain. It was determined that the loss of railroad traffic into Columbia would have a negative impact on the economy and the industries here. So, the City of Columbia stepped in and bought the railroad in October 1987. Under the Water and Light Department, the railroad has been an integral part of retaining business and attracting new industries to Columbia. Having the railroad also enables Water and Light to cost-effectively bring in the low-sulfur coal from Kentucky to burn at the City's power plant.
Columbia Water and Light is a locally owned municipal utility. All decisions concerning the Water and Light department are made by the City Council. Recommendations are made to the Council by the Water and Light Advisory Board. The Water and Light Department is now run as a separate entity of the city. The utility contributes to the government in the form of a gross receipts tax, property taxes and contributions to the general fund. One hundred years after being formed, Columbia Water and Light has developed a strong infrastructure while keeping rates low. Due to local ownership, profits have stayed in the community to benefit the community. Columbia Water and Light a community tradition.