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lake decatur receding at lost bridge road

Receding waters near the Lost Bridge Road boat ramps reveal contents of the lake.

DECATUR — Despite cooler temperatures toward the end of the week, Decatur’s water situation remains grim, and its consequences could be dire.

The lake was recorded at 611.29 feet above sea level Friday, nearly 3 feet down from its normal summer levels. It was full June 6, but weeks of scorching temperatures combined with the city’s heavy water use to rapidly sap the lake that provides water to residents, surrounding communities and several of the city’s major employers.

“We can’t stress enough the severity of this situation,” said Keith Alexander, the city’s director of Water Management. “Even though the weather conditions are a little bit better, the lake continues to decline at a slower rate than it did in July, but it is still declining.

“We still have a water demand that is greater than the supplemental water supplies that we have available to us, so the lake continues to fall again because of those reasons.”

While city’s current water restrictions ban lawn watering and the operation of commercial car washes using city water, the next stage could have a devastating effect on industry.

Archer Daniels Midland Co. uses 61 percent of the lake’s water coming from its North Water Treatment Plant and the city’s South Water Treatment Plant. Tate & Lyle uses 17 percent of the lake’s water.

Residents consume 12 percent, followed by “other users” with 9 percent, and Mount Zion with 1 percent.

If the heavy industrial customers are forced to limit their use by a significant percentage, Alexander said, it could lead to layoffs that would have a negative economic effect throughout the community.

“Our opinion is that if they had to face mandatory water restrictions of any magnitude, there would be a good chance that they would shut down production lines and lay people off,” Alexander said of the heavy water users. “That’s certainly not something we would want to do on a large scale in our community.”

That’s a worst-case scenario for the city. Alexander said officials are crunching the numbers to figure out what percentage of reduction to require from the companies if that becomes necessary.

“We know that a 10 percent mandatory reduction would do very little long-term. It may have to be a larger number,” he said.

ADM spokeswoman Jackie Anderson said the company has a continuing focus on conserving water, particularly in facilities in places such as Decatur with the potential to be “water-stressed.”

At the company’s corn plant in Decatur, Anderson said daily monitoring in 2010 helped save 100 million gallons of water per year. That’s in addition to 1.5 billion gallons of water per year that were saved by the installation of an advanced water filtration and treatment system three years earlier, she said.

“Since last August, ADM has been using about 2 million gallons of water per day from ADM-owned wells for use in our operations to help reduce the demand on city water supplies,” Anderson said. “We are also continuing to explore ideas with the city to expand that water supply even further.”

This isn’t the first time the community has faced challenges due to a lack of water.

The lake reached 608.5 feet above sea level in November 1988. A month earlier, then-Public Works Director William B. Sands told the Herald & Review that the city had only about 70 days of water left: “It’s so urgent, because every million gallons we get could mean another day people remain employed” in water-intensive industries.

In 1988, the city undertook multiple water preservation projects, including building temporary dams. Water restrictions did not shut down businesses but did ban most lawn sprinkling, at-home car washing and other uses of garden hoses, according to newspaper articles at the time.

This drought is drawing more comparisons to the severe dry spell of the early 1950s. The lowest water level that city officials have on record for that time was 605.19 feet above sea level, but the demands on the lake also were much fewer back then.

In July 1953, water use from Lake Decatur amounted to 11.8 million gallons per day. During the same month in 1988, it had nearly quadrupled to 40.1 million gallons per day. Last month, it was 42.5 million gallons per day.

Alexander said there is some good news for residents: There isn’t much individual use left for the city to limit, except maybe the water used for gardening. Currently, residents may use a bucket with a capacity of less than 5 gallons to water their vegetable gardens on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

People and businesses have the option of importing water from other areas to use in ways that might otherwise violate the restrictions, Alexander said. They can also use water from dehumidifiers.

But Alexander said people should not save the water from their washing machines and showers for the purpose of watering their plants and lawns.

“We do not allow that use because that water originally came from the Decatur water supply, and we do have public health and safety to be concerned with as well,” Alexander said. “It sounds counterintuitive, but you know, that’s gray water. At that point, it literally is untreated water that typically goes into a sanitary sewer, so for public health and safety, we would discourage people using gray water.”

He also suggested that people could put out rain barrels to collect water, should it happen to fall from the sky.

But the outlook for that isn’t very good, said Chuck Schaffer, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service at Lincoln.

Schaffer said Decatur has received about half of its normal rainfall in the past 13 months. Most of the rain events this year and even last year managed to miss the area.

As a result, Macon County is classified as an “extreme drought” area by the weather service. The only designation considered worse is “exceptional drought,” which Schaffer said the area could face if the next few weeks continue without rain.

The weather service’s official outlook is for below normal rainfall through October, he said.

“In general, we’re just going to need weeks and months of above-normal rainfall. It’s going to take a long time to get out of this pattern,” Schaffer said.

A full list of water restrictions is available at decaturil.gov. Residents also can call the city’s Water Services Division at 875-5705.

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