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Mandatory water conservation regulations will likely be in effect in Lincoln for at least a few more days, as the city water department works to repair flood-related problems at its Platte River wellfields.

Mayor Chris Beutler and the City Council approved an emergency declaration Monday with mandatory water restrictions for businesses and residences.

Residential customers are being asked to curb their water use by 50 percent and businesses by 25 percent in order to reduce water to below the level being supplied by the city’s water plant in Ashland.

The problem is water quantity, not water quality, city leaders emphasized. 

Lincoln water is not contaminated. The water is drawn from an aquifer under the Platte River where it is cleaned as it seeps through rock and gravel. In addition, the water from the city wells is processed at two treatment plants in Ashland before being pumped to Lincoln. 

Because of the flood-related problems that have cut off electricity to many of the city wells, the Ashland plant is producing about 25 million to 32 million gallons a day of drinking water, while Lincoln homes and businesses generally use 30 million to 35 million gallons of water a day in the winter.

The city does have about 60 million to 70 million gallons of water in underground and above-ground storage tanks in Lincoln and Ashland, according to Donna Garden, assistant director for Lincoln Transportation and Utilities.

The city was encouraged by a 1-million gallon dip in water usage Monday morning when everyone was getting ready for work and school, Beutler said. 

But usage will have to drop more to avoid serious problems. 

If water usage doesn't drop, the mayor can order the city to raise rates for water use, a measure originally intended for drought-related emergencies. 

That rate structure increases the water rate for everyone, both residential and business users, and means those who don't decrease their water usage will face higher bills.

"We really need to see how much water usage we have over the next few days," before deciding whether to move to the higher rates, said Miki Esposito, Lincoln Transportation and Utilities director. "We really believe Lincolnites are going to help us with this problem," she said.  

There is also a system to fine people caught breaking the mandatory water rules. That method is used for violations that are visible, such as washing cars or watering lawns, Esposito said.

Police initially will respond by first talking to people before issuing any citations for water violations, said Police Chief Jeff Bliemeister.

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Esposito said she expects the water restrictions to continue for at least a few more days, depending on how quickly the city can get electricity to the pumps in Lincoln's north wellfield.  

Residents are encouraged to use less water by taking fewer and shorter showers, flushing toilets less often, using disposable utensils and plates, avoiding using the dishwasher and postponing laundry.  

The declaration prohibits using water outdoors and there are more specific rules for businesses.  

Under the emergency declaration, all restaurants and institutions are to use disposable table settings. Restaurants and bars are to serve water to customers upon request only.

All commercial car washes are to close.

The most serious problems began Sunday morning after a levee upstream from the city's wells and treatment plant was breached. At one point late Sunday afternoon, the city was producing no water.

Later Sunday evening, city staff did restore water production from the south wellfield, which generally produces between 25 million to 30 million gallons a day.

At a Monday news conference, Beutler said production had increased to 32 million gallons, but still not enough to meet the community's traditional daily usage.

“The situation remains serious,” he said.

Beutler first announced the mandatory restrictions at a news conference late Sunday night. They went into effect at 8 a.m. Monday.

Later Monday, the council unanimously approved an emergency resolution to extend the mayor’s 72-hour declaration until the mayor or council cancel it. It also allows the city to seek state and federal disaster funding.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7250 or nhicks@journalstar.com

On Twitter @LJSNancyHicks.

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