Planning for Lincoln's Future Water Supply

The Platte River, which can get low in late summer and during droughts. (Photo by Ariana Brocious, NET News)
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November 10, 2017 - 6:45am

The last time the city of Lincoln faced serious water restrictions was the record-setting hot and dry year of 2012. With more drought likely in Nebraska’s future, how is the capital city planning to handle future water shortages and sustain the city’s thirst past the middle of this century?


Like several cities in Nebraska, Lincoln relies on wellfields in the Platte River for its municipal water. Most years, the river provides plenty—and sometimes more than needed.

“Nebraska's climate is such that we have floods and we have droughts,” said Paul Zillig, general manager of the Lower Platte South Natural Resources District. He knows when the river’s water level drops low in late summer, especially during serious drought years like 2002 and 2012—that water supply can get a bit dicey. So Lower Platte South, Lower Platte North and Papio-Missouri River NRDs teamed up with the water utilities in Lincoln and Omaha and the state to fund a study looking into ways to get more water in the lower Platte River—especially during those dry times.

“Looking into the future, we need a plan in case we have a situation that's worse than 2012. What else can be done? And that's pretty much what the study's looking at, is what are our options?” Zillig said.

Generally, there’s enough water supply in the lower Platte Basin to meet demand. So several of the options include ways to retime water flows in the river, said Jesse Bradley, assistant director for the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources. That includes finding additional reservoir space, repurposing reservoir space, canal groundwater recharge projects, “and different types of water banking and leasing arrangements we might implement for drought,” he said, tools that are already in use around the state. The half-million dollar study conducted by Omaha-based engineering firm HDR will identify which options are the most promising and feasible.

“What we've historically seen is during drought periods, that upper reach of the Platte River tends to become disconnected from the Lower Platte stretch, the flows there tend to dry out during extreme droughts,” Bradley said. So the study is focused on the lower Platte River (downstream of Columbus) and its tributaries, the Loup and Elkhorn rivers.

Another main element of the study is building a forecasting tool to help give lead time to the NRDs and utilities about a possible dry season or drought ahead. The forecasting tool will incorporate historic climate data and a long-term forecasting algorithm—about nine months to a year out, according to John Engel of HDR. That could let utilities implement water restrictions early, or get a head start on pursuing some of the options to increase water supply near the wellfield.

Currently, Lincoln’s entire water supply comes from those wellfields along the lower Platte River. Omaha also relies on the river for some of its water supply. Steve Owen of Lincoln Water System says this study is important in the near term, but it won't be a long-term solution for Lincoln, because eventually the city will need more water.

Since 1990, Lincoln Water System has built three additional high-volume wells in the Platte River to increase its water supply. A fourth will be completed in summer of 2018, and two more could be built in the future. But Owen says the city will likely need another source past 2045—which could be the Missouri River. One option may be to purchase water from Metropolitan Utilities District, Omaha’s water utility.

“That option actually does get us tied indirectly to the Missouri River because their supply is partly based on Missouri River water. A bigger picture might be for us to actually move or develop a wellfield of our own along the Missouri River,” Owen said.

Those projects won’t be cheap. And because Lincoln Water System is funded by ratepayers, “in order to begin planning financially and getting our customers sort of used to this idea, we want to start talking about it now,” Owen said.

Climate change will likely bring more extreme weather, and could make droughts more frequent and intense. Eventually, there’s a chance the Lincoln and Omaha water utilities could merge. But Owen points out that Lincoln residents have also become much more mindful about water conservation.

“Since the early 1970s, population in Lincoln has increased by 70 percent, but our water use has stayed almost constant,” Owen said, which could help extend that timeline.

Jennifer Schellpeper, water planning division manager for the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources, said this project is an example of the kind of preparation by local water districts to prepare for future drought. The agency has been working with other NRDs on similar water planning projects to manage both surface and groundwater. 

“These types of questions: how do we plan ahead, where do we come up with increased water supply, what are the uses in this basin, we're looking at that all across the state,” she said.

While some parts of the state are doing drought planning by necessity, the Lower Platte Basin effort is voluntary. That should give the group more time to figure out the best—and most affordable—ways to handle more years like 2012. A draft report of their findings is expected by next summer.

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