D.M. water utility pleads for conservation during near-record demand, hopes to avoid restrictions

By: - August 28, 2020 4:18 pm

The Raccoon River is a major source of Greater Des Moines tap water. (Photo courtesy of Des Moines Water Works)

One of Iowa’s largest water utilities is scrambling to find enough water for taps and may eventually have to consider forcing residents and businesses to conserve, the general manager said.

Ted Corrigan, CEO and general manager of the 500,000-customer Des Moines Water Works, said that in addition to fighting water quality issues, the utility is trying to find enough water to pump. 

Drought and water quality problems have left the utility with less water to pump than usual, during near-record demand, Corrigan said. 

Crews this week installed flashboards on the low-head dam on the Raccoon River near the Water Works’ main treatment plant along Fleur Drive for the first time in seven years.

Crews install flashboards on a low-head dam near Des Moines Water Works’ treatment plant to raise the river level during a drought. (Photo courtesy of Des Moines Water Works)

The flashboards raised the river’s level from less than a half-foot to more than two feet. Drought conditions had left the Raccoon so low it threatened to make pumping difficult, Corrigan said. 

An outbreak of algae toxins on the Des Moines River, the other main source of water to be treated to serve area taps, led the utility to look elsewhere for water to treat. The Raccoon also has had high levels of microcystin at times, but not as often as the Des Moines, which receives water from Saylorville Lake upstream. 

Corrigan said microcystin tends to form more readily in lakes. He is looking into proposing new shallow-aquifer wells along the Des Moines River north of downtown, a move that would cost “tens of millions of dollars,” to sidestep the microcystin problem. The utility has long called for better control of farm runoff upstream, and filed a high-profile federal lawsuit on the issue that eventually was dismissed. The issue remains.

In an unusual move, the utility is pumping 9 million gallons of water a day from three underground storage areas where the utility pumps treated water.

That has helped, Corrigan said. The utility has a couple of small reservoirs, too. 

Still, hot conditions in the area and a drought that now has spread across the state have tested water supplies. 

“We have asked people to help, but they don’t seem to be interested,” Corrigan said.

Ted Corrigan is CEO and general manager of Des Moines Water Works. (Photo courtesy of Des Moines Water Works)

The heaviest demand this year came Monday when the utility pumped 85 million gallons. Corrigan said that isn’t that far below the all-time record of 96.6 million gallons set one day in July 2012. 

Residents asked to change schedule for outdoor watering

Corrigan said Des Moines area residents tend to water their lawns on Monday. Those with sprinkler schedules tend to run the water on Mondays, Wednesdays and Friday. 

Water Works has asked customers who live at even-numbered addresses to water on Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays before 10 a.m. or after 5 p.m. Those living at odd-numbered addresses were asked to water on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturdays during the same periods. 

The utility asked everyone to avoid watering between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. on any day. 

Other Iowa cities put conservation orders in place

Huxley took a stronger approach, with the City Council approving a conservation ordinance in July. 

Huxley has banned lawn-watering in an effort to conserve a drought-shrunken water supply. (Photo courtesy of city of Huxley)

The city temporarily banned lawn-watering. Vegetable and flower gardens have to be watered between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m.

The town’s conservation ordinance also bans filling swimming pools. Vehicles may only be rinsed at commercial car washes. Violators get a 24-hour warning but face loss of water service for repeat offenses. 

The town of Casey, which straddles the border between Adair and Guthrie counties, declared a conservation alert the first week of August. 

City officials reported that the drought had left the water tower with low levels. They asked residents to avoid watering lawns or filling swimming pools. 

Calling it a “pressing matter,” Casey leaders reported on the city’s website that the conservation was needed to avoid a loss of water service or an order to boil water before consuming it. 

The latest U.S. Drought Monitor showed much of Iowa either in various stages of drought or abnormally dry. 

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