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Showers or flowers?

WORTHINGTON -- While the city of Worthington is using less water than it did a year ago, the well levels are still lower than they were at this time last year.

"We are getting a lot of questions and I'm sure you folks are as well," Worthington Public Utilities General Manager Scott Hain told the city council Monday night. "There seems to be a lack of awareness of the seriousness of the situation, even though things have improved. Our wells have come up about 10 feet since our low point, which was the first week in March."

According to Hain, the level of the well he uses as an indicator is about 4.5 feet lower than it was at this time a year ago.

"That's 9 feet, 11 inches lower than it was at the same time two years ago," Hain explained. "I looked back at the five-year averages and the 10-year averages. We're 10 feet, 2 inches below the five-year average and we're 9 feet, 9 inches below the 10-year average."

With the continuing ban on non-essential water use, the city has taken much less water than it has in previous years. Comparing the first four months of this year to the same time last year, total water sales are down 35.4 million gallons.

"People seem to be responding," Hain said. "It's across the board -- residential consumption through the first four months is down 7.9 percent from last year. Commercial is down 10.6 percent, and industrial is down 12 percent."

The larger employers in town are also doing their part to conserve.

"At this point in time, a lot of them are taking steps," Hain said. "We certainly have visited with them and asked them to do what they can. Our larger water users are taking steps and doing that. Through the first four months this year, our largest water user has reduced its water consumption by 12 percent."

Hain did explain the numbers could be a little skewed. Since 2012's weather was much warmer earlier, more people were began watering their lawns and gardens accordingly.

"It's really hard to go apples to apples. Last year, it was a bit of an anomaly in the amount of water that got used because spring came so early and the weather was nice and folks were coming off the beginning of the drought that started the first of August, 2011," Hain said. "Last year was the first year in a number of years that we saw the residential water use go up over the course of a year."

However, compared to two years ago, the city is still down 20 million gallons through the first four months of the year.

Coupled with the connection to Lincoln-Pipestone Rural Water, the city is taking much less water from the wells.

"Our withdrawal from the Lake Bella well field is actually 82,630,000 fewer gallons than it was through the first four months last year," Hain said.

Currently, the city is taking as much as it can from the LPRW connection, which is about 500,000 gallons per day. Hain hopes a second connection will be finished by the end of June to increase that by 50 percent.

However, on a normal day, the city uses between 2.5 and 3 million gallons of water, meaning LPRW will only provide 25 to 30 percent of the water needed.

Hain explained to the council the ban was still in place. There had been talks about modifying it, but Hain said the water levels weren't at that point yet.

"We certainly realize it's an inconvenience and people would like to get out and get some projects done, but we really don't feel like we're in position to even consider lifting that ban right now," he said.

Hain explained non-essential uses included watering the lawn or flowers, washing a car in the driveway or washing out dog kennels, to name a few examples. At this point, car washes aren't being shut down.

"We didn't impose this ban because we could or because we were looking for a lot of additional phone traffic at the utility office," Hain said. "We're doing it because it's a serious situation. We're heading, potentially, into the third year of this situation."

This also includes the city cutting back, too. Landscaping at the Event Center will be delayed due to the ban. Flower baskets are not being hung downtown, and the normal flushing of the fire hydrants will not happen.

If things don't improve, there may be other uses that become banned.

"You're going to see an expansion of the banned uses -- you'll see a response fairly quick if things start heading the other direction," Hain said. "The last thing we want to have to do is get a hold of Red Cross and say, 'Guess what, we have a community of 13,000 people and we don't have any water.'"

He has been checking on the wells regularly, and said another indicator is looking at the tiles in the field. There was some trickle to them, but until they start running the excess water off the fields, wells won't get the effects of precipitation.

"I went out and checked a few tile lines over the weekend and some of them are just starting to trickle," he said. "Until those tile lines start running water, the ground is still soaking it up. It's taking us a while to see that normal bounce after precipitation.

"When you try add more water to a sponge that's already full, the water just runs out. That's not where we're at yet."

The city was able to generate electricity during the rolling blackouts following the ice storm, but it can't generate water.

"We were fortunate, with the ice storm, when we lost electrical power transmission and we were able to roll power," Hain said. "We can't generate water. If you go to your tap and it doesn't come on, it's not going to be back on in an hour. This is going to be for real, if it happens. That's what we're trying to avoid.

There is a defined amount of that resource. You can't generate water. When it's gone, it's gone."

Daily Globe Community Content Coordinator Aaron Hagen may be reached at 376-7323.