A century ago, Lincoln faced a major water crisis. The city’s saltwater wells would soon no longer be able to provide decent water to a population that was growing from 55,000 in 1920 to 76,000 in 1930.
The crisis, which forced severe water use restrictions in the late 1920s, was abated by a new water source – a well field in the Platte River near Ashland that has expanded through the decades to supply water today for Lincoln’s 292,000 residents, businesses and industry.
That wellfield, however, was threatened by flooding that knocked out power to the wells three years ago, prompting an acceleration in the city’s effort to find a second water source for the community, whose population is expected to grow to 470,000 in 40 years.
The need for a second water source isn’t at a crisis level. The Ashland well field is believed to be adequate to supply water for the city’s steadily growing population for 20 to 25 years.
But determining and securing a new water source and constructing the pipelines and other infrastructure could take 25 years. That timeline makes a second source of water a top priority for Lincoln now and going forward.
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To that end, the city has issued a request for proposals from engineering firms to start the process of finding and securing an alternative water source. The firm selected would be charged with identifying the source by January 2023 and completing studies on technical issues by January 2025.
Digging wells just outside the city limits is not feasible. “This is the Salt Creek Valley for a reason,” Lincoln Transportation and Utilities Director Liz Elliott told the Legislature’s Natural Resources Committee. “The water around here – around Lincoln especially – is very salty.”
So water will have to come from miles away. So far, the city has identified two possible sources, linking with Omaha’s Metropolitan Utilities District’s connection to the Missouri River or building a direct connection to the Missouri.
Cost estimates for the project vary from $350 million to more than $800 million – hefty sums for the city to bear that could and should be offset by using some of the more than $1 billion in federal stimulus and infrastructure funds available to the state.
Sen. Eliot Bostar’s LB1081 would appropriate $200 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds in grants to Lincoln for design and construction of water projects, acquisition of land, permitting, pumping and transporting water over 25 miles. That bill should be approved by the Natural Resources Committee and included in the federal stimulus fund spending package.
For providing a second water source for Lincoln, Nebraska’s second largest city and governmental, educational and sports hub, is much more of a necessity and would be of greater benefit to more people than a giant recreational lake, any single city economic development project or nearly every other proposal.