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Drought May Force Tougher Water Restrictions


July was the hottest month on record for the U.S. since the government began tracking that data back in 1895. The heat has led to water shortages across the country, and that is affecting everything from electric bills to jobs. From member station WUIS in Springfield, Illinois, Rachel Otwell has this report.

RACHEL OTWELL, BYLINE: Wide-spread drought is causing cities across the country to rethink how they manage their water. In some cases, residents and businesses are being told to limit usage, and new ordinances are being passed to enforce those limits. Cities in states like Texas, Nebraska, North Dakota and Massachusetts limit how much water residents and businesses are allowed to use.

Greg Kail is with the American Water Works Association. He says it's likely that hundreds of utilities across the country are using water restrictions, and pretty soon more will be mandatory.

GREG KAIL: When the restrictions are mandatory, you can be pretty sure that there is a serious concern about the water supply, and hopefully the community will respond.

OTWELL: Today, Tom Skelly is touring a water treatment plant in Springfield, Illinois. He's in an outdoor area that looks like it could be a lazy river at a water park. Water from nearby Lake Springfield is being diverted here and then filtered before chemicals are added. Skelly heads the city's water department and says mandatory water restrictions here address two problems: the amount of water this treatment plant has to process, and the lowering levels of the lake it depends on.

Is there any worry of the lake ever drying up?

TOM SKELLY: Well, certainly, that's a large concern for us. We saw during the drought of the 1950s that the lake dropped 13 feet below full pool.

OTWELL: Skelly says if the lake gets that low again, the city's power plant - which depends on lake water - would be forced to limit its production. He says if conditions don't improve, restrictions will become more severe, like a surcharge for water use that goes over a set limit.

Springfield Mayor Michael Houston says water restrictions are aimed at making residents think seriously about conserving water, but he's long pushed to have another lake built here.

MAYOR MICHAEL HOUSTON: I am a firm believer that those places that have water in the future are going to attract people, and they're going to attract jobs. And I think it really is important for Springfield - and I think it's important for the entire Midwest - that we protect the water sources that we have here.

OTWELL: As water restrictions spread, so does the pain. In Decatur, stricter measures include a ban on car washing. For Dawn Grandon, who works at a commercial car wash, that means the end of her job.

DAWN GRANDON: It's going to affect us a lot. We've got 10 employees here at this wash alone that are going to have to go to unemployment or find another job or something for the next, like, three to six months, if not longer.

OTWELL: Brian Fuchs is a climatologist at the National Drought Mitigation Center based at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. He says it often takes something as serious as a drought for city officials to consider updating their water systems.

BRIAN FUCHS: When you do start talking restrictions and preaching conservation messages, I think that's good for everyone, because it does make them step back and realize that their water's coming from somewhere, and they need to know what they can do to sustain that flow of fresh water.

OTWELL: And that's a message city officials all over the drought-stricken country are trying to spread. For now, they say, sacrifices will have to be made to ensure there's enough water left for the bare necessities.

For NPR news, I'm Rachel Otwell in Springfield, Illinois.


MONTAGNE: It's NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Otwell

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