Where can eastern Nebraska find more water during times of drought? ‘There is no silver bullet.’

Where can eastern Nebraska find more water during times of drought? ‘There is no silver bullet.’
World-Herald News Service

Back in 2012, when the rain stopped and the earth cracked open, cities across Nebraska cut back water use. In some, including Lincoln, watering your lawn on the wrong day could bring a knock on your door.

The strain on the Lower Platte River, which serves about 80 percent of the state’s population, including Lincoln and Omaha, was apparent.

Lincoln, far more vulnerable than Omaha, has boosted its water supplies by 30 percent since then. Both cities are collaborating with other water managers to find a way to replenish the Lower Platte during drought.

Last month, the Lower Platte River Basin Consortium published a draft analysis of eight potential sources for extra water. The cost ranges from $6 million to nearly $250 million, and each comes with varying degrees of reliability.

“They’re expensive, there is no silver bullet,” said John Engel, the vice president and water resource engineer at HDR Inc., who assisted with the study.

A public meeting on the report is set for 5 p.m. Wednesday at the Lower Platte South Natural Resources District, 3125 Portia St., in Lincoln. A formal presentation starts at 5:30 p.m.

The study cost about $500,000 and was funded by state and federal dollars. The consortium consists of the Lower Platte South, Lower Platte North and Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources Districts, the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources, the Lincoln Water System and the Metropolitan Utilities District of Omaha.

This is the first time that those who manage the water — the NRDs and state — and those who use the water — the utilities — have collaborated to chart a path forward, said Steve Owen, superintendent of water production for Lincoln.

“This is real important,” he said. “It’s all about making sure we have sufficient water.”

In 2016, the participants published a report outlining the need for additional water. In five of the preceding 13 years, water shortages were an issue, that report found. Twice, in 2002 and 2012, Lincoln has had to mandate water restrictions. Since 2012, Lincoln has expanded capacity by 30 percent, but that won’t be enough to meet future needs, Owen said.

In a separate, complementary study, Lincoln and Metropolitan Utilities District are examining whether Lincoln should also obtain water from MUD.

As harsh as 2012 was, the state dodged a bullet because the following year didn’t bring a replay. It’s likely that Nebraska won’t be so lucky in the future. Over the lifetime of a child born today, Nebraska’s typical summer heat waves will be similar to the extreme heat of 2012, according to a University of Nebraska-Lincoln analysis of global warming impacts on the state.

“As Nebraskans, we should all be mutually concerned that we’re able to deliver water to all of our communities,” said Rick Kubat, government affairs attorney for MUD. “It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when (water will be needed). Rather than being reactionary to that situation, the purpose of the consortium is to be proactive.”

Omaha’s MUD and its 600,000 customers get about half their water from the Platte, said Mark Mendenhall, senior vice president and general counsel.

With two water plants on the Platte and a third on the Missouri River, MUD can pump up to about 328 million gallons a day. The most it has had to pump on one day was 227 million gallons, the record set on June 21, 1988.

The purpose of a new source isn’t to enable additional pumping, Mendenhall and Owen said. Rather it would be used to replenish flows on the Platte so that all needs can be met.

The water managers are certain of one thing: A solution doesn’t lie ‘out west.’ That’s because the Platte River, fed by snow melt from the Rocky Mountains, runs dry during extreme drought before it reaches Lincoln and Omaha.

In 2012, it petered out near Columbus and then resurfaced further east after being replenished by two significant tributaries, the Elkhorn and Loup Rivers.

Building reservoirs on creeks near Winslow or Linwood, piping in water from the Missouri River or tapping into a regionally nearby aquifer are the options that would supply the most water, according to the report. Though the Missouri River option is costly, the report notes, it brings the added insurance of pulling in water from outside the Platte River watershed.

Next up for the consortium is to get a better sense of which options might be best through drought monitoring, test scenarios and more coordination and communication.