Why Lincoln Needs to Conserve Water

Author: Dakota Staggs

 

There is plenty of water to go around, for now.

The city of Lincoln gets its water supply from an aquifer adjacent to the Platte River in Ashland, NE. This has been the city’s source of water since a water pumping station was built there in 1932. As the city of Lincoln has grown its water needs have also increased. Multiple water treatment plants have been added and expanded since the Platte was established as Lincoln’s main source of water.

The Platte River also serves as the main water source for many other cities along its course through Nebraska. Cities like Kearney and Grand Island have used the Platte’s resources for many years and plan on expanding that use in coming years.

Unfortunately, the Platte is not an unlimited resource. Drought, overuse, and misuse of water from the Platte river could result in capping its capacity to support the cities that rely so heavily on it for daily function. The reliability of the wells used to pump water from the Platte can be gauged by the flow of the river, which on average in the month of May is around 8400 cubic feet per second (cfs) (Burns & McDonnell, “Platte West Water Production Facilities”).

Looking at the month of May over the past several years, we can compare Platte River flow, weather, and water use in the city of Lincoln. In 2012, during the state’s worst drought since the 1980s, the Platte experienced severe lows of river flow, yet, the city of Lincoln’s water consumption did not falter.  That is understandable, as the city had to maintain function and did not know they were in the middle of the worst drought in over 20 years, along with temperatures six degrees above the yearly average. Because of the city’s continued high consumption, the city had to enact phase 1 of the drought water restriction plan , asking community members to limit outdoor water use to three designated days a week. The next phase would have enacted mandatory restrictions, and the final level could have completely prohibited outdoor water use for things like gardens and lawns. Hindsight is 20/20, but looking back, we can see why we must be prepared.

In May of 2014, the River again experienced low water flow, almost directly associated with temperature and water use highs. The city of Lincoln learned from this experience and through conservation awareness efforts, like promoting gardeners to plant native species, water use significantly declined in the next year.

You may remember the record rains of 2015, which helped to bring the Platte flow up. Those record rains, partnered with cooler temperatures were a significant factor in Lincoln’s success to conserve water. Not to discredit Lincoln’s efforts, but it is important to recognize that water conservation is easier when temperatures are lower with more rain than what is typically expected.

May of 2016 was a good month for the Platte. It experienced similar weather and water use to 2015, with slight increases in water use and temperatures, yet no lows in river flow.

This May is progressing similar to 2016 with only one instance of notable river flow below 10,000 cfs at 8850, still above the average. We are also experiencing a similar average temperature (as of May 21st) at 75 degrees F. Water use and temperature highs are less drastic than 2014’s, but we are seeing similar trends between increased temperature and water use. So far, we’ve seen two significant temperature peaks corresponding to  water use peaks.  

If we can learn one thing from looking at the correlation between temperature highs, Platte River flow, and water use in the city of Lincoln, it is that our water use needs to be more respectful of temperature and river flow.

This is a lot to ask, but it is necessary.

Average temperatures in the midwest have been steadily rising since the early 20th century - a trend that is predicted to continue. If temperatures stay high, there is a greater likelihood that water use will increase in the city of Lincoln. If this trend progresses as anticipated, along with population growth, Lincoln will not be able to rely on the Platte River alone for its water supply.

The Superintendent of Water Production for the Lincoln Water System, Steve Owen, in an interview with Ariana Brocious of NET, talked about how Lincoln is having to consider the Missouri River as a potential additional source of water for the future because of population growth.

That would be a serious and expensive project.

Steve Owen also pointed out in that interview that the city of Lincoln has room to grow in their conservation efforts. He praised the city for scaling back water consumption by using low flow shower heads and other simple conservation techniques, but points out that outdoor water use, such as wasteful lawn watering,  needs to be addressed.

Conserving water can be tedious, but so was tying your shoes when you first learned how.  

Part of the reason conserving water can seem so difficult is, like any other change, we’re just not used to it. Steve Owen mentioned that the midwest has a mentality of unlimited water supplies and a right to use that water, but that is not the case.

Lincoln as a city needs to continue to recognize that its water is a limited resource, and begin to break down wasteful water use habits and replace them with conservative ones. There are many simple outdoor watering techniques that can significantly reduce waste, such as:

  • using drip irrigation systems instead of sprinklers or hoses,
  • watering your lawn by hand instead of with a sprinkler,
  • to avoid water lost to evaporation, water your lawn and plants in the morning or evening, or on less windy days
  • set your mower one setting higher to allow longer grass blades.

There are many more tips on how to conserve water outdoors as well as indoors; we just need to recognize the need to save water and act to do so.

Lincoln very well may grow beyond the Platte River’s capability to support its water needs. Until then, we can prolong the lifespan of our current wells by saving as much water as possible, rather than spending millions on a project to tap into the Missouri River so that we may continue our current consumption habits.

Lincoln has to learn to tie its shoes eventually… why not now?