Time to put more effort into reducing demand for water

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

No one was really surprised Monday when city officials asked water users to avoid outside watering between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m., because water usage was extremely high.

Some of us, in fact, are surprised that anyone would try to water when temperatures were in the 90s and winds in the 30s, when water is more likely to evaporate on its way to the neighbor’s yard than to help our lawns survive.

Availability of water, and limiting its use has been a way of life, off and on, for decades in McCook. In the days before air conditioning became common, the city banned the use of “swamp cooler” evaporative coolers in local homes because of the high water use.

The pressure to provide cooling power has shifted to the electrical system, and it’s a sure sign of summer when NPPD’s jet turbine “peaking unit” on North Highway 83 kicks on to supplement power from the statewide grid to keep residents cool.

McCook went through a long ordeal beginning in the 1980s, when the search for nitrate-free drinking water turned up more groundwater contamination, this being solvent from a former electrical component factory near the airport.

Diesel contamination of soil near a ground-storage water tank near the railroad also complicated the issue, forcing that tank to be abandoned as well.

The city got by for a while by mixing water by relying on wells with lower nitrate concentrations most of the time, mixing in higher-nitrate water from more contaminated wells as demand increased during the summer.

In search of a long-term solution, the city first attempted to bring clean, untreated water from Frontier County, but that ran into opposition. It then purchased the old Army Airbase as a well field, then sold the property at loss when possible wartime contamination became an issue.

Finally biting the bullet, McCook built a state-of-the-art treatment plant for $14 million, spending a similar amount to operate it over the years since it went into service in 2006.

The plant uses ion exchange to remove arsenic and uranium from the city water supply, in addition to the original nitrate problem.

But there are two ways to deal with a shortage of anything, and building a freshwater drinking plant is one of them -- increasing the supply.

The other way, reducing demand, is the goal of city requests and mandates that we reduce outside watering.

Perhaps it’s time to put a little more effort into a long-term boost to reducing the demand side of the equation.

An internet search of xeriscaping finds numerous examples of communities offering rebates to homeowners who replace water-thirsty landscaping like Kentucky bluegrass with varieties of buffalo grass, other types of drought-tolerant landscaping plants, and even doing away with vegetation altogether.

Cruise around town and you’ll notice many homeowners who are reducing water usage without any official incentive, other than simply saving on their water bills.

Their solutions range from simply letting lawns die, to planting buffalo grass or other drought-tolerant turf, to removing lawns altogether and replacing them with rock.

A drastic reduction of water use might make it difficult to keep the city enterprise fund that includes water in the black, but the incremental decrease that could result from encouraging xeriscaping could help prevent the next water shortage and stave off major capital expenditures to keep up with demand.

The Nebraska Statewide Arboretum offers a number of arguments in support of xeriscaping, as well practical ways to reduce water consumption. Check them out here: https://bit.ly/2CbFWHN

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