Well, Well, Well

February 12, 2013 at 2:30pm By: Mr. Wilson Posted in The Lincolnite Blog

I don’t want to sound alarmist, but Lincoln and Nebraska have a water problem. True, much of Nebraska sits atop a fantastic source of underground water. But the Ogallala Aquifer is shrinking and we can’t assume it’s an infinite resource. Speaking locally, Lincoln doesn’t draw its water directly from that source. Instead, we rely on the inconsistent flows of the Platte River.

Lincoln is about to add a new horizontal well out near Ashland. A second horizontal well could be added soon after, depending on need. But it’ll cost us, to the tune of just shy of $14 million.

The City of Lincoln is reviewing its water management policies. Good, as long as “reviewing” actually turns into near-term action. The sooner we start making substantial changes, the more prepared we’ll be over the long haul. Changes may include modifications to the City’s lawn watering policies, increased water usage rates, and so forth. I have a couple suggestions for the sorts of updates I would put on the table.

First, I would strongly consider making the “odd day / even day” watering policy permanent. There is no practical reason why lawns need to be watered more frequently than three days per week. The same holds true for most plants you’ll find in an urban yard. This sort of watering plan sacrifices neither lawn health nor appearance. Enforcement can be a problem (as we’ve discovered in the past), so we would need to work on that. The first place I’d go is to neighborhood associations. They could provide substantial assistance with education and gentle reminders. Ticketing authority could remain with LPD, or a team of individuals could be “deputized” to warn and ticket repeat offenders. I actually prefer the latter, though I’m not sure of the associated legalities.

I remain a strong supporter of increasing water rates for “heavy” residential and commercial users. Under an ideal system, homeowners would pay a low base rate for a quantity of water based on the number of residents; water rates would increase substantially above that base level. Realistically I’m not sure how you implement such a plan. Setting up a reasonable fee schedule would be relatively easy, if politically charged. But niggling matters like tracking the number of residents in a home, accounting for multi-family units, and other such details would likely drag the entire effort down. So-called “smart” water meters might help address some of those concerns, but they come with their own downsides.

It’s apparent that we the City’s plan to drill a new well is the right one for now. We can do more, though. What else would you suggest?

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The Comments

Nikkidemas February 12, 2013 at 4:37pm

PurpleScream February 12, 2013 at 5:02pm

I agree with permanent restrictions, higher rates for high useage, and capturing rainwater.

I’d like to see some way to make it easier for people to capture grey water inside their homes for use outside. I’m not even sure what’s legal as far as plumbing adjustments? I keep thinking (as I rinse something) that’d it’d be handy to just have a switch to move between sending flow into the sewer and sending flow to some catch basin outside that I could then use for watering my plants.

I also saw something online in some developing country where they were installing toilets with a special rim that captured pee for use on crops, but I suppose we’d run into problems with the health department?

anyways - we need to get creative!

Karin Dalziel February 12, 2013 at 5:32pm

I have a problem with the odd even day thing. It doesn’t get at the problem - if you water for an hour in the high heat of the day every day you’re allowed, you are still going to use way more water than someone who conserves generally.  It really takes the joy out of summer, too - no playing in the sprinklers today, kids, it’s a tuesday. (I almost never water my lawn but I do enjoy a half our or so of sprinkler jumping in the summer occasionally). We also had a lot of problems establishing new plants this summer. A neighbor joked he wouldn’t turn us in “this time” when we brought a gallon jug of water out on an off day to prevent a new transplant from dying.

Better, I think, are tiered use prices along with detailed bills that explain the prices. It would encourage people to conserve, but allow the flexibility to make decisions on when to use water. We should be paying more for water.

Fletch February 12, 2013 at 5:53pm

I agree with Karin, in that the odd/even thing, while good in theory, doesn’t always work in practice. Some people will think they are beating the system, without helping the problem, but cutting back the days but increasing the times on their sprinklers. 

There are instances, such as with new plantings, that you may need to water more or on off days. People with new sod last year could get a piece of paper to hang on the front door indicating the lawn was new and waiving the requirement. On a smaller scale, there could be a need for someone planting a few plants or trees.

Education would be helpful - most people don’t have a clue how much water their lawns need and what that equates to in time, etc. Sprinkler companies could help out by better educating current and past customers. Many people don’t know how to adjust their settings, or even how to turn them on or off.

I have a rain sensor on my system - when we get overnight rain, and it’s enough to register, my sprinklers won’t run. If it’s a real heavy rain, they won’t run for a couple of days. (I also have a brain. If we get an inch of rain, I turn my system off for at least a week.)  Those should be mandatory on new automatic sprinkler system installations, and there should be a rebate/incentive program for older systems adding one. 

I would think a formula could be devised to add surcharges for heavy use on residential and commercial water bills. Look, the city knows how large my property is, and how much is taken up by the house and driveway (it’s on the assessor’s website, more or less). A formula could be derived that judges the difference in my bills for watering season, and non-watering season (it’s easy to tell from water bills, which city has access to).

If a lawn should get, for example, an inch of water a week, it would be easy to figure out how much water that would be based on the square feet of my yard (data they have), and then charge a higher price for water above normal usage during watering season (above and beyond the average of winter), and then an even higher charge (like double) for the people that go above the 1-inch per week threshold. It wouldn’t be that hard to figure out.

In other words, using the 1-inch example, if I wanted to spread that out over 4 waterings in a week without worrying about odd/even, I should still pay less than some clown who doubles that amount, even if they do it all in one day.

Karin Dalziel February 12, 2013 at 6:34pm

BTW, THANK YOU for bringing up the Ogallala Aquifer.  It was the first thing I thought of when I read that article - yay, our immidiate water problems will be solved, but what about 20-40 years from now?

George February 13, 2013 at 4:45pm

We took a trip to the capital this weekend and enjoyed the tour that they have.  What struck me the most of the tour was a comment the tour guide made about what was here when settlers showed up.


We were a treeless plain.

Though I never want to go back to being a treeless plain, I do think that we have been very selfish in bringing in plants and grass that require higher maintenance than native plants and grasses. Some states have started to put bans on more harmful non-native plants because they wreck havoc on ecosystems, and I believe that the non-native plants have a very large role in the current water shortage.

Karin Dalziel February 14, 2013 at 4:20pm

OK, no one will probably read this comment, but I have been thinking this over and wanted to put thoughts down somewhere.

I don’t think people with more property should get a bigger allowance for water - having an acre of water greedy plants shouldn’t be rewarded. On the other hand, the lawns are already there, so what to do? Perhaps the city could subsidize turning part of a property into a water conserving planting area with native plants. I do think this should be done in consultation with experts, because I have firsthand experience in how hard it is to do this on your own. I’m not saying no one should have a lawn, just that if you have a large property, having all of the greenspace devoted to water hungry plants isn’t sustainable. I think the biggest culprits here are commercial properties (and the university), and for that reason, we should start there with any reform.

Unlike property size, the number of people in a household should have a direct impact on water use. But also unlike property size, the city government (to my knowledge) does not have detailed information on the number of people living in each house. This is a hard problem to solve. The only solution I can think of in a tiered use system is allowing people to apply for a higher water use allowance based on the number of people in the household. I could see how this could be abused, too, but I’d hate to see a family that has to live 10 to a house because of financial constrains also get hit with an unfairly high water bill.

Mr. Wilson February 14, 2013 at 4:44pm

I read it, and I largely agree. Here’s an additional complication for you: food production. A garden is (subjectively) a “better” use of land than a lawn, at least according to certain criteria. It hardly seems fair to punish food producers while trying to target the lush green lawn types.

Lots of issues to consider.

Just Thinkin' February 14, 2013 at 9:31pm

I wish Urban Planners and commercial developers would think about some of the setback requirements and landscaping in their business development plans. Does a bank or shopping mall really need a sprawling landscape with trees, shrubs and flowers? Could professional horticulturalist come up with alternative plant materials? Or how about using art, nice fencing or other materials to add visual appeal?

Fletch February 15, 2013 at 6:21am

I read it, too. I think there have to be formulas that could be determined based on household usage, at least for homes that are not brand new. You can call the electric company and find out how much power has been used on average, and same with gas. Why couldn’t water work the same way? If someone is more than 120% of average, for example, maybe a higher rate kicks in for the water used above that threshold. For new homes, estimates could be made based on square footage/comparables, etc.

In terms of an allowance for a bigger yard, I think an issue is that the homes and yards are in place. I live on a circle. The three houses at the end of the circle have HUGE lots. That’s the way they were laid out. Comparing grass to grass, they likely have twice the yard space that I do. Punishing them now would not seem right, but I should think their water allowance should be double mine if I follow the rules, and their watering portion of the bill should be double mine. I wouldn’t want to pay the same price for less yard, etc. But you can’t really take away the land or the grass. We have turf that is supposed to be less dependent on water, or more able to sustain a drought than bluegrass, for example.

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