WORTHINGTON -- Looks can be deceiving, especially when recent rains and melting snow have brought flowing water to streams that have been dry, and covered the surfaces of lake beds where deep crevices told the story of a severe drought last fall.
Despite the badly needed moisture, the U.S. Drought Monitor released last week showed Worthington on the line between a moderate and severe drought. Communities from Luverne to Pipestone and Marshall to Windom are all still thirsting for rain, and National Weather Service Hydrologist Mike Gillispie of Sioux Falls, S.D., said there's no strong sign of a drought-buster in the forecast.
"Right now, the outlook for May calls for equal chances for above normal and below normal precipitation and temperatures," Gillispie said Monday. "It's kind of anything goes right now. If we look for the summer -- June, July and August -- we are looking at slightly increased chances for above normal temperatures and equal chances of precipitation."
It isn't the kind of forecast Worthington Public Utilities Manager Scott Hain would have hoped for going into spring, when homeowners want to seed lawns, plant new trees and beautify their lawns with spring and summer flowers. A ban on nonessential watering in the city limits means residents can't do any of those things.
"We're still a long ways away from where we would feel comfortable at this time of year," Hain said.
Snow melt and recent rains have helped to recharge the soil somewhat, and the static level at Well 26 near Lake Bella was up 7 feet, 8 inches last Friday from the low point recorded on March 8. Still, Hain said the water level at the well is 3.5 feet below what it was at this time last year, and nearly 13 feet lower than the same time in 2011.
Hain said Worthington Public Utilities has received a lot of inquiries from the public about the watering ban and whether it will remain in effect. He said he doesn't want to lift the ban now, only to put it in place in another month if the area doesn't return to a normal precipitation pattern.
The city is heeding its own advice when it comes to nonessential watering. The planters that usually beautify the downtown shopping district in Worthington will not be out this year -- a decision made two months ago when Worthington Forester Scott Rosenberg needed to place the order.
"I couldn't say you could use city water to water those," Hain said, adding that they decided to "play it safe."
"Obviously, it's a city-wide ban on watering and the city wants to set a good example," he said.
Landscaping at the city's new event center may also have to be put on hold if timely rains don't come this spring.
"No sense laying sod or planting bushes if they can't be watered," said Hain.
The Worthington Area Chamber of Commerce has also decided to forego its Flower Power promotion this year. The Chamber's executive director, Darlene Macklin, said the Community Improvement Committee didn't want people planting a lot of flowers and then not be able to water them.
"It would be hard to promote Flower Power when people can't be watering," Macklin said, adding that the promotion will return in 2014 -- depending on the weather, of course.
"This is a serious situation," Hain said back at the WPU. "If we go through another season like we have the last two, things are going to get really touchy around here as far as water goes.
"Everyone's going to have to make good choices -- don't waste the resource," he added.
As of yet, the watering restrictions haven't flowed over to commercial and industrial businesses in the community. So, while people can't wash their car on their lawn or in their driveway because of the watering ban, they can still take it to a local car wash. The same can be said for greenhouses. People can't water plants, flowers or trees, but greenhouses will be able to water their merchandise until it sells.
"Those (car washes and greenhouses) will be the next thing to go," Hain said -- if a normal precipitation pattern doesn't resume soon. "From there, we'd have to start dipping into some of those statutory provisions, imposing stringent limits on businesses."
Meanwhile, Hain encourages people to do everything they can to conserve water -- including fixing leaky plumbing fixtures, taking shorter showers and not leaving the water running during teeth-brushing.
"Every little bit helps," he said. "We really don't want to get to the day where we seriously have to affect people's livelihoods ... because of a water shortage."
The city has established fines for people who violate the nonessential watering ban. The first offense comes with a $95 fine, a second offense is $165 and repeat violators could face having their water service disconnected to their home.
"We don't want anyone to get a ticket over this; we just want them to be smart and don't do it," Hain said.
If people see others violating the ordinance, they can report it to either the WPU office at 372-8680 or the Worthington Police Department's non-emergency number at 295-5400.
"If you're following the restrictions at home and your neighbor isn't, it isn't just your neighbor that is going to be out of water (if the wells go dry) -- you're going to be out of water, too," Hain said.
Still, he remains optimistic that the city's wells will be OK "if we just return to a somewhat normal precipitation pattern."
And Gillispie, the hydrologist, said there has been "quite a bit of improvement" in the last few weeks because of the snowmelt and rains.
Between March 31 and April 28, this area of southwest Minnesota experienced two to four inches of soil moisture recharge.
"We're still 1 to 3 inches below normal, but that's better than the 4 to 6 inches below normal," Gillispie said.
Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer may be reached at 376-7330.