John Ferguson’s grass, or what’s left of it, makes a crunching sound when you walk through it. The yard surrounding his ranch-style house in the central Nebraska village of Marquette is mostly brown, except for a few areas shaded by large trees and a few patches of green weeds.
In Ferguson’s backyard is a brown tomato vine struggling to support a handful of undersized fruit. Nearby are other parched, wilted plants. During most years John and his wife work to make their yard look nice. But the Fergusons and 200 others who live in Marquette haven’t been allowed to turn a hose on their yards since mid-July, when local water use restrictions were put in place.
“We knew that we were getting low on water,” said Ferguson, who is president of the Bank of Marquette and was involved in putting restrictions into place as a longtime member of the village board.“The flume where our wells are located was being drawn down pretty fast because of the weather and the irrigating.”
Ferguson says knowing the village’s supply of drinking water is in danger, local residents have cooperated with the restrictions.
“In a small town everybody knows everybody and if the neighbors give them a glance, they know they better go out and make sure the water’s off,” added Ferguson, who has lived in or around Marquette for most of the 70 years of his life. “I don’t remember the early years too well, I have to admit, but it’s (the) first of my knowledge that the water situation is this bad here in Marquette.”
“It’s a major problem statewide,” said Jack Daniel, drinking water administrator for the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services. “I’ve been in this program for quite a few years and it has been this bad before. But it’s been the culmination of a two to three year consecutive dry cycle. I’ve never seen it get this way, this bad in one year.”
Throughout the state, more than two dozen public water systems like Marquette are restricting water use because of water level problems. Nearly 50 more are restricting water use as a preventive measure. Most are in the eastern half of the state, away from access to the Ogallala Aquifer. Restrictions range from voluntary every-other-day lawn watering to mandatory bans on any outside water use. These steps have been taken because when it’s dry, outside use may account for more than half of household water use. Daniel says during drought, some public water systems are more vulnerable than others.
“We’re a small system state and we have roughly 61 community water systems that only have one well,” Daniel said. “Those that only have the one well are certainly suspect in terms of having problems, especially (depending on) where they’re located within the state. A one-well (system) located in a good part of the Ogallala Aquifer is certainly not the concern of a one-well (system) located along the Kansas border.”
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For Nebraska, this is what’s called a “flash drought,” according to climatologist Mark Svoboda of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s National Drought Mitigation Center. This one-year drought struck quickly, but Svoboda says the groundwork was laid by a mild, dry winter, followed by early heat waves. Now extreme or exceptional drought conditions cover 97 percent of Nebraska, something that hasn’t happened in the 12 years the Drought Mitigation Center has been tracking drought in this manner.
“The footprint of this drought is worse than the 1988 drought and is equal of that as say the 1950s and the 1930s,” Svoboda said. “From just a spatial coverage standpoint, this drought is in the top three that we’ve seen in 110 years.”
Svoboda says there’s hope for a shift to El Nino climate conditions that typically lead to more winter moisture.
“El Nino, which we’re looking likely to phase into at this time, typically brings cooler or wetter winters to the southern tier,” Svoboda said. “Now what it means for snowpack in the Rockies is not clear yet, but hopefully it’s not going to be as bad as last year because we do need that snowpack to start feeding into the Platte and/or the Republican (rivers) and other areas out west. We hope that’s the first domino to fall to sort of change our fortunes and maybe turn us around a little bit.”
It is a change that may not come soon enough for some water systems impacted by the drought. The worst-case scenario is Nebraska’s Emergency Management Agency will be called on to bring portable water into communities.
“What happens is that provisions are made to haul bottled water, or provisions are made to get ahold of a local milk hauling entity, a truck to get water from another source and bring it in,” Daniel explained.
Marquette is one place facing the possibility of water deliveries. Ferguson says they’re keeping a close eye on wells that supply the village.
“You go down there and you measure the water that’s there but you don’t know how deep the flume is,” Ferguson said. “If everybody quits irrigating it could go right back up again.”
If it doesn’t, the village of Marquette has contacted officials and made arrangements for possible emergency water deliveries.
“It’s not come to that yet and hopefully it won’t, but boy, if it keeps up it’s just a matter of time,” Ferguson added.