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Cities ask their residents to conserve water as drought deepens across the central U.S.

Dana Larsen
City of Storm Lake

Sprinklers and hoses are in overdrive across parts of the Midwest and Great Plains as people look for ways to stay cool and keep their lawns looking green amid another drought-filled summer.

But as water demand increases, some cities are putting restrictions in place to keep their water supplies from drying up.

Guthrie, Oklahoma, decided to close their community pool for the summer to prevent using up their limited amount of water. Logan County, where Guthrie is located, has been experiencing drought since fall 2021.

“Due to the low lake water levels and drought conditions, opening the pool could risk the City of Guthrie’s public water availability,” city officials stated in a social media post. “The pool requires 238,000 gallons of water to fill with an additional 40,000 [gallons] a day to maintain water levels. This is not feasible for summer usage given our current water situation.”

Xcaret Nuñez
National Drought Mitigation Center

Meanwhile, other cities such as Storm Lake, Iowa, are asking residents to cut back on filling up their swimming pools and watering their lawns. The city recently implemented voluntary water conservation measures after the city’s water use exceeded its daily limit of 4 million gallons per day.

“We have a growing population, so when you couple that with the lack of rain and drought, we had to put some measures together,” said Keri Navratil, Storm Lake’s city manager. “But right now we're staying steady at voluntary. The public has been great this year at following the measures in our plan.”

The city's 11,307 residents are asked to minimize washing their cars, watering their grass and flowers between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. and powerwashing their driveways. Residents are also asked to apply for a permit to fill up their swimming pools to avoid guzzling gallons of water during the city’s peak water usage time.

Meanwhile, the city has minimized its water use by reducing lawn sprinkling on city properties, baseball fields and golf courses.

“Our golf courses might not be the prettiest, greenest ones, but we water enough to keep them alive and you can still play on them,” Navratil said. “We are constantly aware of what usage we are using because we want to be the example, not the exception.”

But implementing voluntary conservation measures is new territory for cities such as Wentzville, Missouri. The city recently declared a voluntary Water Conservation Declaration after Gov. Mike Parson issued an executive order declaring a drought alert. Now, more than 90% of Missouri counties are experiencing drought conditions.

Wentzville’s declaration encourages residents to follow a split watering schedule: even-numbered addresses should water on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, while odd-numbered addresses should water on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Residents are also encouraged to spot water plants and dry patches on the lawn for only 30 minutes a day.

“Here we are in June, and we’re already seeing the kind of record [irrigation] demand if it were July or August,” said Susan Spiegel, Wentzville’s public utilities director.

She said she expects the plan will stay in effect through September if drought conditions don’t improve.

“We don't, here in Missouri, often talk about water conservation, because there's a lot of water here, Spiegel said. “So we're working on education for our residents, helping them use their water a little more wisely and trying to balance our demand.”

Steve Owen
City of Lincoln

In Lincoln, Nebraska, city leaders put a voluntary water conservation plan in effect June 2. It noted that dry conditions have depleted the aquifer that supplies Lincoln’s wellfield to only 65% capacity, and the Platte River flows are at their lowest levels since 1965.

Throughout April and May, eastern Nebraska typically gets about eight inches of rain, said Steve Owen, the superintendent of water production for the City of Lincoln. But he said this year, April showers left rain gauges mostly dry.

“In those two months, we only got an inch of rain, so it’s incredibly dry,” Owen said. “That’s what really shifted us from the extreme drought category to the exceptional drought category for the first time ever in Lancaster County.”  

Owen said the city has rarely enacted its voluntary conservation plan. The only times it issued its mandatory conservation restrictions were in 2002 and 2012 because of drought.

Although residents are responding well to the measures so far, he said factors such as water levels, drought conditions and water usage will ultimately guide whether the city decides to implement mandatory restrictions later this summer.

“I think it’s important to remind people the value of water,” Owen said. “It’s important to remind people that it's a finite resource, meaning there's not an unlimited supply.”

Xcaret Nuñez covers agriculture, food systems and rural issues for KOSU and Harvest Public Media and is a Report For America corps member.

This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues.

Copyright 2023 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.

Xcaret Nuñez studies radio/television journalism and religious studies at the University of Missouri — Columbia.
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