By DAVID MERCER-
The Associated Press
CHAMPAIGN – Lake Springfield is 2 feet below full right now, something that happens every year – but not usually until late fall.
The drought and heat withering crops and drying up waterways across more than half of the country has lowered the level of the lake Illinois’ capital uses for water enough that the city is considering water restrictions for the first time since 1988.
A dozen or more other Illinois cities, from Decatur to Rockford, have either enacted restrictions or asked water users to voluntarily cut back before they face limits.
None of the cities are raising serious alarms yet. The restrictions Springfield Mayor Mike Houston is drafting for the City Council to consider early next month wouldn’t, for instance, limit watering on local golf courses.
But a summer that’s shaping up to be one of the hottest and driest in state history – and the fact that it will take more than a good rain or two to get conditions back to normal – has them taking steps they hope will avoid serious trouble in the months ahead.
“It’s not just the drought, it’s the heat,” said Amber Sabin, a spokeswoman for City Water, Light and Power in Springfield, where 50,000 households and several surrounding towns depend on water from the lake.
“We’ve been averaging a drop of a little over a half inch a day,” Sabin said.
In Decatur, where the city imposed restrictions this month, Lake Decatur is down, too, about 21⁄4 feet, water services manager Randy Miller said.
Local residents are protecting their drinking water by watering only on select days and giving up the automatic glass of water they’re used to getting at restaurants. Those who don’t follow the restrictions could face fines. The city has asked people to report possible violations to police.
But in Decatur, water restrictions also help protect two big agriculture companies that employ several thousand people between them. Archer Daniels Midland Co. and Tate & Lyle use many millions of gallons of water a day to process corn and soybeans into food and industrial products.
“They’re really big users,” Miller said. “Our commercial and industrial users are about 70 percent of our use. And they would be a big piece of that.”
ADM alone uses about 20 million gallons a day, though the company is using its own wells to cover about 10 percent of that and ease the demand on city water, company spokeswoman Jackie Anderson said.
The drought grew more extreme this week, and a weekly federal update said Illinois was at the heart of it. Almost three-quarters of the state advanced rapidly this month into extreme or exceptional drought, the two worst stages listed by the U.S. Drought Monitor.
And that won’t be easy to reverse, state climatologist Jim Angel said.
Many locations around the state are 9, 12 or 15 inches below normal rainfall for the year and need at least 6 to 8 inches of water to benefit plants and generate runoff into creeks and rivers, said Angel, who works at the Illinois Water Survey in Champaign.
“It’s going to take a while,” Angel said, looking back at how severe droughts ended in the past. “When we looked at the 1988 drought, it really wasn’t until the fall (that) we started to make some gains on soil moisture.”
So far, Illinois is having its second-driest year on record, with an average of 13.5 inches of rain so far, according to the Water Survey. Only 1936, with 12.2 inches of rain through late July, was drier.
Many Chicago suburbs that rely on Lake Michigan for water are required by the state to limit water use every summer, even in wet years.
Others – Galesburg, Mattoon and Pleasant Plains in central Illinois among them – have said over the past week that water supplies are just fine.
But 24 of the state’s 55 reservoirs are at risk for shortages any time drought conditions become extreme, according to the Water Survey. Most can endure 18 months of drought before local water supplies are threatened, though Decatur is a notable exception at eight to 10 months.
If conditions don’t improve, many cities say they could tighten restrictions.
In Springfield, Sabin said, that would mean limits on watering at farms, nurseries and golf courses like the municipal one Paul Loutzenhiser runs.
Right now, greens and fairways at the Bunn Golf Course are lush, but the course is using about triple what it typically would to maintain them, said Loutzenhiser, the head pro. That means heavy watering very early in the morning, and a dose of what’s known as syringing – spraying grass down for short periods to cool it off – in the heat of the day.
That next round of potential restrictions would typically require the course to let its fairways go, Loutzenhiser said.
“They’ll obviously turn brown just like every homeowners’ yard will right now,” he said. “Hopefully, it’s not going to come to that.”