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Cedar Rapids May Restrict Water Usage If Drought Persists

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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa - Drought in 2012 didn't force the city of Cedar Rapids to impose restrictions on water use.

However, that may change in 2013 if the drought continues, Steve Hershner, the city's interim utilities director, told the City Council's Infrastructure Committee on Tuesday.

The state of Iowa, including Linn County, remains in drought, and Hershner said all the forecasts indicate that the drought will persist into 2013.

He provided the committee with a Nov. 1 forecast map from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that places Iowa in a zone where drought is expected to persist or intensify between Nov. 1 and Jan. 31, 2013.

"We don't know where this is going to go, but we want to make sure we plan for it," Hershner said.

He said the city's Water Division is looking at a drought response program with three or four stages, each of which will be triggered as the city's water supply diminishes and/or demand spikes.

At Stage 1, the city might ask the public to reduce landscape watering and the city itself would cut back on non-essential uses of water. At Stage 2, the city might allow landscape watering at odd-number addresses one day and even-number addresses the next. At Stages 3 and 4, the city might eliminate its use of water except for public health and safety and prohibit landscape watering and vehicle washing, though likely not at carwashes, Hershner said.

He noted that the city's current water emergency plan dates to 1989 and needs to be updated to clarify what actions the city will take when water use approaches the city system's capacity to pump, treat or deliver "finished" water to its customers. As the new plan is finalized, the public will be asked for comment, he said.

In an interview on Monday, Hershner said that the city's system of about 45 shallow wells along the Cedar River above downtown can deliver about 60 million gallons of treated water a day. That was an amount sufficient to handle historic peak demands in the summer of 2012 when the city's system reached a pumping record of 53.688 million gallons a day on July 25. The city pumped more than 50 million gallons of water a day on 23 days between June 18 and Aug. 3, the Water Division has said.

But Hershner noted that the city's system delivered because nothing in the system broke.

Hershner told the committee on Tuesday that the city has seen some decline in the ability of its well system to produce water. That fact could be an indication that the flood of 2008 and the drought of 2012 together have changed some of the "pathways" of the Cedar River, which recharges the city's system of shallow wells alongside the river, he said on Monday.

"The (river) water is not moving in a way that it had previously," Hershner said.

Two months ago, the city's Water Division alerted the City Council that the city needs to look to expand the water system's capacity in the years ahead to make sure that the city is prepared for future industrial growth. Cedar Rapids is a center for corn-processing industries, which are high users of water and wastewater treatment capacity.

Hershner noted that the city is in the process of installing a fifth horizontal collector well a horizontal well brings in more water than one of the city's more numerous vertical wells with a sixth horizontal well in the planning stages to help bolster the city's water supply. Between 55 and 65 percent of the city's water is used by industry depending on the time of the year, Hershner said.

On Tuesday, Harry Hillaker, Iowa's state climatologist, noted that the state of Iowa and Linn County continue in drought and have made little headway in recent months to get out of drought despite some rainfall.

Linn County's average rainfall for the year is 9.43 inches below its average rainfall amount of 32.45 inches, he reported.

Hillaker said Linn County is now classified as in moderate drought, an improvement from an extreme drought rating that has come, in part, because he said soil moisture has improved to about 60 percent of normal.

"But in the big picture, we haven't made much progress," he said.

Hillaker said previous droughts in Iowa typically have been followed by a drier-than-usual year, and as a result, the expectation is that Iowa will be drier than normal, at least in the first six or seven months of 2013.

In Iowa, 1988 was a drought year, but 1989 was actually worse than 1989 in terms of river levels and water tables, Hillaker said.

Hershner provided the Infrastructure Committee with Hillaker's weather summary for October, which stated that the typical river stage across Iowa was at the 19 percentile of flow at the end of October compared to the 35 percentile a year earlier. A regional network of nine shallow wells shows the water table in the state at eight of the nine well sites to be lower than a year ago, Hillaker's report stated.

"I know it's just November," Hershner told the committee. "But we can't begin (to plan) soon enough."

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