Click here to see the recommendations for Lincoln's water conservation efforts and what other towns are placing restrictions on water use.
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LINCOLN — If the well runs dry, the owner of Darla's Daycare will run for bottled water and hand-sanitizer.
In the meantime, Darla Parrott does her part to conserve the drought-imperiled underground water supply in Harbine, a village of 49 people about an hour's drive southwest of Lincoln. The prospect of no showers, no laundry and no flushes has Parrott teaching the six kids in her care to turn off the faucet while they scrub their hands before lunch.
“I think everyone in town is pretty much trying not to use as much water,” she said.
But if conservation efforts fail, a local dairy is on standby to deliver water to Harbine in milk trucks. Under such a scenario, townspeople would have to queue up to fill 5-gallon containers.
The Jefferson County village leads a list of 19 Nebraska communities under mandatory conservation, which means water can be used only for essential indoor purposes and on restricted days or times outdoors. Managers of water systems in an additional 53 Nebraska communities have asked their residents to voluntarily reduce water use.
In western Iowa, state officials are aware of at least 17 communities that have implemented restrictions, almost all voluntary.
Lincoln represents by far the largest city in either state to use voluntary restrictions, which it instituted on July 26. On Friday, Mayor Chris Beutler pleaded with citizens to be even more miserly when watering flowers or taking showers so he isn't forced to order mandatory restrictions as soon as next week.
“We must work together as a community to reduce water use even more so we have adequate supplies for drinking, fire protection and other essential uses,” the mayor said.
Most communities instituting conservation measures are in eastern Nebraska, where center-pivot irrigation systems draw water from deep, confined aquifers that don't recharge as quickly as those closer to the surface. As the drought has spurred more irrigation, water tables have dropped to levels one state official hasn't seen until the end of August during past droughts.
“We're in uncharted territory right now,” said Jack Daniel, drinking water administrator for the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.
While some communities try to stretch their dwindling supplies, Omaha enjoys an embarrassment of water riches. Despite record demand on the city's water system in recent weeks, the Metropolitan Utilities District has no plans to ask its roughly 600,000 residential customers to restrict their water use.
Nebraska's largest city enjoys an adequate supply pumped by three treatment plants: Two from wellfields beneath the Platte River and one that draws directly from the Missouri River. Unlike most streams in Nebraska and Iowa, the Missouri River continues to have adequate flow.
The same can't be said for the Platte River, which has been squeezed to a relative trickle by 100-degree days, cloudless skies and a drought classified as severe or extreme across most of Nebraska. The condition of the Platte has amplified anxiety in communities such as Lincoln, which rely solely on wellfields beneath that river.
Such wellfields need flow in the streambed to replenish the water pumped and piped to 260,000 residents in Lincoln, said Jerry Obrist, manager of the city's water system.
Meanwhile, Lincoln endured its second-driest July on record, which sharply increased demand for water. Residents have been asked to follow a voluntary schedule that restricts them to three days of outdoor watering per week, although the mayor encouraged citizens to get by with two days if possible.
The goal is to hold the city's daily water consumption to no greater than 60 million gallons — down from a July 24 peak of 80 million gallons. Since the mayor made his original plea, the city has used an average of 67 million gallons daily.
If Platte flows continue to fall, mandatory restrictions could follow, and violations will lead to fines, Obrist said. The last time Lincoln did that was in 2002.
Putting the Drought of 2012 into perspective requires a much longer view, Obrist said.
“This drought right now, the way it's going, it's going to be worse than in 1974,” he said. “It's probably going to be the worst since the 1950s.”
Water restrictions can give new meaning to the phrase “neighborhood watch.” Even though the restrictions have thus far been voluntary, the water department already has gotten calls from residents snitching on their neighbors for excess watering. In 2002, Lincoln police responded to hundreds of calls about water violations, said Officer Katie Flood.
Omaha hasn't had to worry about restrictions — voluntary or otherwise — because even during the hottest, driest days of July, the city's water treatment and delivery system ran comfortably below its maximum capacity, said Mark Doyle, senior vice president at MUD.
The utility's three treatment plants can pump a maximum volume of 330 million gallons per day. While Omaha's daily demand in July averaged 194 million gallons, the utility moved a record 224 million gallons on July 23.
MUD officials share Lincoln's concerns about low river flows affecting wellfields in the Platte, but Omaha also can draw water from the Missouri River. The utility has leaned slightly more on the Missouri during the drought to help lessen demand on the Platte, Doyle said.
“We are operating effectively, and we see no issues,” Doyle said. “All the wells we need are operating.”
But that's not to say Omahans haven't changed their water usage patterns. Many stopped watering lawns or have taken to watering during the coolest hours of the day. Peak demand on the system tends to run between 5 a.m. and 7 a.m., Doyle said.
In places like Harbine, peak demand from residents matters less than peak demand by nearby irrigation pivots.
The 49 residents use an average of 8,000 gallons per day, which they get directly from a single municipal well. There is no water tower or treatment plant, just a small pressure tank, said Kirk Weichel, the village's water operator.
In a normal year, Weichel said the water level in the well might drop 10 or 15 feet during irrigation season. But this year, since mid-June, the level dropped nearly 30 feet.
“We've never seen it this low,” he said.
At one point last week, the water level stood just 7 feet above the bottom of the pump. When the area recently got a good rain and irrigators were able to shut off their pumps for a day or two, the water level rose 9 feet, Weichel said.
While many small Nebraska towns have struggled against population loss for decades, none have faced the possibility of literally drying up. HHS officials say no municipal well has completely run dry in past droughts.
Harbine doesn't want to be the first.
Village officials plan to meet with an engineer Tuesday to consider options, which may include dropping the pump lower in the well shaft, but that option comes with its own set of challenges.
So the milk trucks wait at the ready.
“If we can get another rain or two, we'll probably be all right,” Weichel said. “But if this hot, dry stuff keeps going on, I don't know.”
World-Herald staff writer Leslie Reed contributed to this report.
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City of Lincoln recommendations
Voluntary water conservation
» Odd-numbered houses water outdoors on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Even-numbered houses water on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. No outdoor watering on Mondays.
» Reduce outdoor watering by 20 percent. Example: Reduce automatic sprinkler time per zone from 15 minutes to 12 minutes.
» Water only two days a week if possible.
» Hand water needy portions of your landscape. Keep a closer eye on items planted within the past year.
» Wean established landscapes. Start by watering three days a week before reducing further.
» Thicken mulch by 2 to 3 inches to suffocate weeds and slow evaporation.
» Consider water bags for newly planted trees and shrubs.
»Use soaker or drip irrigation systems. Keep hoses covered with mulch to reduce evaporation.
Mandatory restrictions (if enacted)
» No-cost city permits required to water newly planted grass and to operate underground lawn sprinklers, water-cooled air conditioners and private wells.
» Washing cars and other vehicles restricted to designated-day schedule.
» Restricted watering for golf courses.
» No refilling of operating ornamental fountains and waterfalls.
» No washing sidewalks and driveways.
» No adding water to swimming pools. Only small wading pools for children and pets can be filled.
Communities with water restrictions
Based on information provided to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources