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Everything was OK with Lincoln water supply until it got 'really scary'
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Everything was OK with Lincoln water supply until it got 'really scary'

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Lincoln Water System wellfield, 3.18

A view of the Lincoln Water System south wellfield near Ashland on March 18. For a time last week, city officials mandated water restrictions because of problems caused by the Platte River flooding.

For several days, city leaders watched as floodwaters threatened the Lincoln Water System wellfields near Ashland.

Originally, officials thought the water production facilities along the Platte River were safe. When the gauge measuring the Platte at the U.S. 6 bridge recorded an all-time high on March 15, water production was relatively normal.

But the situation turned, and by March 17, they feared the city would be unable to produce water.

The Journal Star talked to city officials about the timeline of events that forced Mayor Chris Beutler to declare voluntary and mandatory water restrictions a week ago.

But first, here is how the city water system works:

The city draws its drinking water from an aquifer under the Platte.

There, the city has 40 vertical wells in two wellfields — labeled north and south — located on the west side of the river. Together, those vertical wells can send 50 million to 60 million gallons of water a day to Lincoln.

The city also has four horizontal wells, three on an island in the river and one on the east side of the Platte. Each horizontal well can produce up to 25 million gallons of water daily.

The system treats the water at two treatment plants at the Ashland complex, then pumps the water through three mains to Lincoln.

Lincoln stores water in underground and above-ground tanks, and can hold about 100 million gallons in reserve in Lincoln and about 10 million gallons in Ashland.

The problems created by the flooding this month damaged one vertical well and the transformer for another horizontal well. 

Flooding also cut off power to the north wellfield, to the island, and to the horizontal well on the east side of the Platte.

For three short periods during the weekend of March 16-17, the Ashland plant was producing no water.

Here's the timeline of what happened:

March 14: On Thursday, as floodwaters spread across the state, levels in the Platte River rose, with water flowing over the road on the island.

March 15: Water in the Platte was still rising, with the surge of water causing a threat to the island, including erosion on the north tip. Power to the northernmost well on the island was lost. The transformer was underwater.

The river reached 23 feet at noon, approaching the record level dating to 1997.

By Friday afternoon, the city had lost power to all the wells on the island. But the north and south wellfields and the newest horizontal well on the east bank of the river were operating.

Sandbagging operations, with help from the National Guard, were started to protect the northern horizontal well on the island.

“At that point, our only concern was not the supply, but the horizontal well (that may have been damaged),” said Miki Esposito, director of the city's Transportation and Utility Department.

“We had lots of capacity.” The city’s two vertical wellfields were pumping 50 million to 60 million gallons a day, more than enough to meet winter water demands.

March 16: The river level was up another foot to a record 24.35 feet, exceeding the 500-year flood stage. There was extensive erosion on the island bank.

Sandbagging operations continued on that Saturday.

At the time, the city had about 100 million gallons of water stored in tanks in Lincoln and another 10 million in Ashland.

“We were full,” Esposito said.

During the morning hours, the city temporarily lost power to the north and south wellfields and to the horizontal well on the east bank. So, for a short time, Ashland was producing no water. 

Power was restored to the north and south wellfields but not to the east bank horizontal well. Still, the city was able to produce about 36 million gallons per day and the reservoirs remained full.

“We felt really fortunate, since a lot of communities had serious flood problems," Esposito said. 

That evening, the levee breached at Thomas Lakes upstream from the Ashland wellfields.

March 17: On Sunday morning, city water staff monitoring the wellfields saw water levels rising rapidly, eventually covering the road adjacent to the north wellfield.

“That’s when it got really scary,” Esposito said.

Very quickly, within an hour and a half, water started eroding the city’s northern wellfield. Power poles collapsed; the water took out a vertical well, and power was temporarily lost to the north and south wellfields. 

“At that point we had no water,” Esposito said.

Omaha Public Power District restored power to the south wellfield by late morning, but not to the north wellfield.

At that point, Lincoln was getting about 19 million to 25 million gallons a day.

At 4:30 p.m., Beutler first announced voluntary water restrictions, “out of an abundance of caution,” Esposito said.

But 10 minutes after that news conference ended, Esposito was informed that the facility had lost pressure in the transmission main from the south wellfield and there was no water moving from the wells to the treatment plant. Ashland was again producing no water.

“Something was wrong and they didn’t know what it was.”

Without additional water being produced, the city had only enough water to last one, maybe two days. 

Staff, working in waist-deep water trying to locate the issue before nightfall, found the problem. A valve — the size of a steering wheel — on the transmission line had malfunctioned.

They fixed the valve, restoring transmission of water from the south wellfield to the treatment plants.

That was a game-changer, Esposito said. Twice in one day the city had no water coming into the treatment plants and had been depleting reserves.

Still, “the situation was really tenuous,” with the levee breach adding to the uncertainty. We needed to ask the community for additional help in conserving the water in the reservoirs, Esposito said.

Late that night, as many Lincoln residents were headed to bed before a day of work and school, Beutler called another news conference to announce mandatory restrictions.

Last week: For several days Lincoln residents ate off paper plates, showered less and drove dirty cars as the statewide impact of the flooding grew in magnitude.

But by Wednesday, with help from several outside agencies, water staff were comfortable the city could keep up with demand and Lincoln ended mandatory restrictions.  

During the past week, the city brought a majority of the north wellfield back online, inspected wells and determined the four horizontal wells are operational.

There was no damage to the treatment plants or to the three mains that bring treated water from Ashland to Lincoln.

As of Friday evening, when voluntary restrictions were lifted, the city had the capacity to produce about 60 million gallons daily from the south and north wellfields and one horizontal well on the island.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7250 or nhicks@journalstar.com

On Twitter @LJSNancyHicks.

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Reporter

Nancy Hicks reports on Lincoln city government, but she’s been following the leaders of local and state government for more than 40 years.

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