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Ban on non-essential water adopted in Worthington

WORTHINGTON -- Whiskey Ditch is barely a trickle, and Lake Okabena's shoreline has visibly receded.

It's dry out there, for sure, and at the Monday meeting of the Worthington Water and Light Commission, members voted to implement a complete ban on non-essential water use within the Worthington city limits.

"They took the next step," said Worthington Public Utilities (WPU) general manager Scott Hain. "We've had the odd/even watering enforcement in effect all this past summer, but the well statics are not doing any better.

"A couple of weeks ago, the commission warned they would take this measure if things didn't improve, and they haven't, so they took action this morning."

In an ordinance that will be legally effective two days after the public notice has officially been posted, any lawn watering or washing of sidewalks, patios or decks will be a misdemeanor offense punishable by up to 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine per occurrence.

"The last time we implemented a total ban was around this same time of year in 2000," Hain said. "At that time, the Okabena/Ocheda Watershed District also implemented a prohibition against using water for any of those same purposes unless the withdrawer had an individual appropriation permit from the Department of Natural Resources.

"We are in conversations with the watershed district about use of non-appropriated water."

As of Friday, static levels at the Lake Bella well field's trigger well (one of seven there that is deemed representative of the others) had fallen to 33.3 feet.

Hain said the "panic point" is 42 feet.

"That's when we consider implementing additional restrictions, and we've been dropping close to one foot a week over the last three or four weeks," Hain said.

"The recharge window is getting pretty small, because once the ground freezes up, we won't see the static levels improve until whatever winter precipitation we get starts to melt," he continued.

"This is definitely a preemptive step the commission has taken." he added.

Despite the odd/even watering ban during the past few months, Hain says Worthington's residential water usage was up significantly over the summer compared with 2011 rates.

"In June, residential water use was up 9.2 percent; in July we were up 24.5 percent and in August, 17 percent," Hain said. "Commercial usage was up 8.8, 25.3 and 22.6 for those same months."

Hain speculates most of that water was simply used for lawn watering.

"I don't know what else they'd have been using it for if not irrigation," Hain said. "Our industrial use rates were much less--up only 3.4 percent in June, and actually down 1.1 percent in July and about even with the previous year's rate in August."

"We have had several successive years when residential per capita use has declined, but this year, it's been way up," he added.

If Worthington residents share a concern about the city's water supply, they would do well to become more attuned to their levels of water usage in the days and weeks ahead, Hain advised.

"If citizens care about our water supply, both for themselves and their neighbors, they should comply with this order," Hain said. "Remind your neighbor that water is getting short, and though we [WPU] can't spend all our time driving around looking for violators, if we get calls, we'll respond to them."

Today, Hain is scheduled to speak to the Noon Kiwanis Club about Worthington's water situation, and he is happy for the chance to spread the word.

"We're also in the process of working on our interconnection with Lincoln/Pipestone Rural Water within the next 30 days," Hain said. "That water will be expensive, but it's wet."

Ultimately, it's up to the weather -- and Worthington's citizens -- to stretch the local water supply through the long, dry winter months.

"This ban is one step in the process," noted Hain. "If things don't change, we'll have to consider finding other reductions, but in the meantime people should do whatever they possibly can to cut back on water consumption.

"It's time."