Pumphouse

A Nebraska National Guard helicopter maneuvers Saturday morning to place sandbags near a city of Lincoln well on an island of the flood-ravaged Platte River.

Only hours after asking residents to voluntarily cut back on water use, city officials late Sunday said a reduction is now mandatory for Lincoln Water System customers.

At a Sunday night news conference, Mayor Chris Beutler announced an emergency order that calls for a 50 percent reduction in water use by residents and 25 percent reduction by industrial, commercial and institutional users.

Such steps are necessary as the city's wellfields are threatened by record flooding on the Platte River near Ashland.

On Sunday evening, the system temporarily lost pressure, Beutler said. It was again producing water by 9:30 p.m., but is unlikely to meet the average daily winter demand of 35 million gallons in Lincoln, and that's if things stabilize.

"It is a tenuous situation," Beutler said.

He urged users to think hard about how they are using water over the next two days.

For residential users, the mandatory reduction suggests:

* No outdoor watering nor washing vehicles

* Taking shorter showers and minimizing household chores such as dishwashing and laundry that use water

For businesses:

* Bars and restaurants are to switch to disposable cups and dinnerware. Water should be served on request only.

* Air conditioning of buildings using Lincoln Water System sources is strictly prohibited.

In general, the restrictions ask for common-sense use of water until the system stabilizes.

Beutler said the city will continue to monitor the situation around the clock, and would tighten or loosen restrictions as warranted. 

Officials stressed that water contamination is not a concern, as all of Lincoln's water is drawn from the aquifer 80 feet below the surface and the city's two treatment facilities are operational. The issues are the wells themselves, the mains that carry the water and power sources in the flood-ravaged area.

Crews are working around the clock to monitor the situation but their opportunity to inspect the wellfields, check out the water lines and restore power depends on water in the river receding, officials said.

The city of Lincoln operates more than 40 wells along the Platte, at least one of which was damaged by floodwaters and others taken offline because of the power issues.

Officials said water usage on Sunday likely drew down the city's 100 million-gallon tanks to 60 million to 70 million gallons in reserve within the city limits, with another 10 million gallons of water in reserve in Ashland. 

"We need to take every precaution to make sure our water supply will continue to meet the daily demands," Beutler said.

Overnight Sunday, a levee break near Thomas Lakes occurred, adding to the flood woes surrounding the city's wellfields.

Staff with the Lincoln Water System watched as water swiftly covered an access road to the city's North Wellfield on Sunday morning and knocked out power at 10:15 a.m. to both the North and South wellfields located on the Platte's west shore, said Miki Esposito, director of Lincoln Transportation and Utilities.

The surge of water damaged a single well at the northernmost point of the wellfield, officials said.

Power was later restored to the South Wellfield, which was again producing water. At that point, the city's focus was on getting power back on to the horizontal well positioned on the Platte's east shore.

That was prior to the loss in pressure within the system on Sunday evening.

On Saturday, operations were focused on the city's wells located on an island of the Platte River. With assistance from the Nebraska National Guard, crews began work at 7 a.m. Saturday to strategically position sandbags near three of the city's wells in the Platte. That operation has since been halted.

The river depth is dropping, officials said, but with the unpredictability of floodwaters and mounting issues within the system, Beutler said he was forced to make restrictions mandatory.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7214 or eclopton@journalstar.com.

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