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'We Pray For Rain': Utilities Implement Water Restrictions As Drought Conditions Linger

Water runs off a central Illinois farm into the East Branch Embarras River through a tile drainage pipe.

Thousands of Iowans are now under voluntary or mandatory water restrictions, due to prolonged drought conditions that are straining local utilities. It’s adding more stress on rural communities that have long struggled to provide safe drinking water in spite of agricultural pollution.

Iowans across the state are being asked to limit their water usage to provide needed relief to utilities struggling to keep up with demand during a stretch of intensely hot, dry weather.

Officials in Manning are encouraging residents to rely on private wells, sources which are largely unregulated and much more prone to contamination. Officials in Harlan are directing restaurants to not give diners a glass of water unless they ask for one.

"Water usage has skyrocketed to record levels the last few days. It does not appear that there is any relief in sight."
-City of Sheldon Facebook Page

As of Friday, an Iowa Department of Natural Resources staffer said the agency is aware of voluntary or mandatory water restrictions in place for the Harlan and Sheldon municipal utilities, as well as the Regional Water Rural Water Association, the West Central Iowa Rural Water Association, and the Lyon & Sioux Rural Water System. The city of Palo is also asking residents to restrict their usage. Collectively, the systems serve an estimated 20,000 Iowans.

Drought conditions are also forcing the Des Moines Water Works to consider implementing voluntary restrictions, a step which External Affairs Manager Jennifer Terry said could come within the next few days.

Current restrictions in place include no watering of lawns; no using water to fill private swimming pools; no using water to wash streets or buildings or for nonessential cleaning of industrial equipment. Farmers are also being asked to fill storage tanks at night for use the next day in order to even out demand.

Drought adds pressure to rural utilities already struggling with nitrate pollution

Even before this summer’s drought, many Iowa communities struggled with high levels of pollution from the immense amount of agricultural pesticides and manure that runs off into the state's waterways, leaving many water sources undrinkable.

Utilities typically draw from a range of sources, including shallow and deep wells as well as surface water sources such as the Raccoon River. Utilities often blend sources together to alleviate water quality issues. For instance, water from a well with high nitrate levels that render it unsafe to drink will be blended with water from a well with safer nitrate levels to keep the drinking water within federal standards.

But due to the extended drought conditions, now some of those safer sources are running low too.

“It's scary. It really is,” said Bonnie Koel, manager of the Lyon & Sioux Rural Water System. “We're very concerned because the majority of our water does come from shallow alluvial wells, which are very directly impacted by the drought situation that we are in.”

Utilities urging voluntary reductions to stave off mandatory restrictions

Many utilities, especially rural ones, can’t afford the expensive treatment options used to remove nitrates from their source water. Koel estimates investing in such a system would mean doubling the rates she charges her customers.

Instead, her utility and others are relying on customers to use less water.

In a post on the City of Sheldon’s Facebook page, officials urged residents to reduce their usage now to stave off mandatory restrictions later.

“Water usage has skyrocketed to record levels the last few days. It does not appear that there is any relief in sight. Our wells have been keeping up but, we have been in drought conditions for the last year and our shallow wells are starting to lose capacity,” the post reads. “This is not a decision we take lightly as we are in the business to sell water and restrictions will decrease revenue, but we are to the point that it is the responsible thing to do.”

Nearly 90 percent of the state facing drought conditions

With nearly 90 percent of the state experiencing some level of drought, the DNR is warning more restrictions may follow.

“[W]ith demand for water increasing with warmer weather, restrictions could become more widespread,” DNR Hydrology Resources Coordinator Tim Hall said in a written statement. “Regular June and July rainfall of an inch or more per week is needed to reverse this trend."

Koel, at the Lyon & Sioux Rural Water System, says one of the key restrictions she’s implemented is temporarily declining to serve any new livestock operations. Northwest Iowa is dotted with massive feedlots, which both rely heavily on rural water systems and are one of the key sources of agricultural pollution in Iowa streams.

“As of right now, we are keeping water in the lines and keeping everybody supplied. But we are worried about…we're worried about the hot months this year. [...] Honestly, we pray for rain. It is a serious condition.”
-Bonnie Koel, manager, Lyon & Sioux Rural Water System

“The time may come when we say, ‘we cannot supply the water for any more [livestock] buildings’. And they'll have to go somewhere else. A different area of the country where the water is more plentiful,” Koel said.

Researchers, environmental advocates and some water utilities have long criticized the state’s voluntary approach to water quality as woefully inadequate, calling on state officials to regulate agricultural producers and implement mandatory water quality standards.

Larger utilities like the Des Moines Water Works are also struggling with the compounding pressures of water pollution and drought conditions.

With climate change expected to usher in more extreme weather, Koel acknowledges the situation is a “serious” one.

“As of right now, we are keeping water in the lines and keeping everybody supplied. But we are worried about…we're worried about the hot months this year. If the rains don't come,” Koel said. “Honestly, we pray for rain. It is a serious condition.”

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter