Record water usage amid dry conditions

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 118 views 

It’s no secret that when the mercury rises, so does water and electricity usage as people try to keep their landscaping alive and their homes cool. But this year usage across much of Northwest Arkansas started to increase well ahead of summer amid drought-like conditions that are expected to worsen before there's any sign of relief.

Beaver Water District sold a record amount of water in May, to the tune of 1.6 billion gallons, said Alan Fortenberry, CEO. Two factors generally cause more water production, he said. The first being more industry or people moving into a service area, the second being the weather.

“In this case, it was more so the weather,” Fortenberry said. “There’s been a lot of people having to do more irrigation.”

Beaver Water District sells water wholesale to Bentonville, Fayetteville, Springdale and Rogers, which then in turn resells water to their own residents and to the surrounding small cities. All told, the system serves more than 300,000 people.

Fortenberry said so far the average has been 51 million gallons a day whereas last year at this time the average use was 39 million gallons – an increase of 30.7%.

Lindsley Smith, communication director for the City of Fayetteville, said usage across the city rose 17.2% exceeding 298.41 million gallons in May 2012 compared to 254.58 million gallons in the year-ago period.

Smith agreed that it’s hard to accurately compare the two months because this time last year is the opposite of this year.  In May 2011 there was much higher than normal rainfall compared to this year, which is much lower than normal.

Other towns, such as Elkins, which purchases its water from Fayetteville, did not see a noticeable increase in water usage for May 2012.

“Usage was about normal for the year, we were at about four or 5 million gallons,” said Michelle Plumlee with the city’s water department. “This time of year you have a lot of pool fillings and also a lot don’t choose to water (plants).  It’s hard in drought conditions to water. Some just decided it’s not worth paying the bill, to water.”

In Springdale, the situation was more similar to Fayetteville. Rene Langston, executive director of Springdale Water Utility, said May 2012 was a record month, but not a record overall. The city purchased more than 507 million gallons of water in May 2012. The previous record for May was in 2005 when the city purchased 463 million.

“This has been August consumption for us in a typical year,” Langston said. “But it’s not a record month by any means. May 2012 was the 22nd highest month on record.”

Langston agreed that the most likely reason for the increase in consumption is the lack of rain.

In Bentonville, which provides both water and electricity for its residents, consumption of both utilities was up.

Gary Wilson, billing and collections manager, said in the last billing cycle, which included part of April and May, electricity usage was up 7.7%. Domestic (non-industrial) water usuage was up 7.2 %. Irrigation, which is water usage that is not tied to the sewer system, rose about 160%, he said.

Wilson said, “Last year we had those heavy rains (which translated to less usage a year ago). We’ve gone from one extreme to another.”

Electricity usage also increased for May, but not excessively, according to Wilson.

In May, the average number of kilowatts sold is about 50 million and this last May the city sold 57 million kilowatts. June’s average is 65 million, he said.

“That still doesn’t compare to July, which averages 76 million kilowatts,” Wilson said.

For Ozarks Electric Cooperative Corporation, which provides electricity for many communities in North Arkansas, the amount of electricity sold did not drastically increase in May.

“Our system is tracking where we were last year,” said Penny Storms, manager of communications. “We have not exceeded the peaks.”

Storms said that some individual customers experienced higher than normal electric bills but that the overall numbers are affected by several other factors in May, including college students moving out of their apartments at the end of the school year.

“The net numbers are about the same,” she said.

The City of Rogers did not respond to two requests for data by The City Wire for this story.

Jason Adams, meteorologist at KFSM, The City Wire’s media partner, said May was the hottest on average for Fort Smith and was the third driest on record. Fort Smith received 1.15 inches of rain and Fayetteville saw even less at 1.05 inches. Fayetteville normally gets nearly 6 inches in May and Fort Smith usually receives nearly 5.5 inches, he said.

“We’re off annually from where we’re supposed to be, but we’re only under about 1.91 inches,” Adams said. “During the first part of the year it was warmer than normal so we got rain instead of snow. But May and now June have been almost non-existent with the rainfall and that’s why we’re in the severe drought.”

Last week, the Climate Data Center updated the severe drought status to include 83% of the state, compared to less than 1% just a week before.

It doesn’t appear to be getting better any time soon, either.

“Drought feeds off of itself,” Adams said.

Highs this week in both Northwest Arkansas and the River Valley are expected to approach and possibly exceed 100 degrees.

May’s hot and dry conditions are starting to have a ripple effect on other industries, such as the landscaping and nursery businesses.

“We’re just now finding the effects of it now,” said Bob Maib, clerk at Bradford Nursery in Rogers. “We’re getting some calls for plant replacements but mostly calls with questions and people bringing in samples of plants to ask if they will be revived with more watering. We’re getting questions in June that we normally get in July or August. It started so much earlier than normal.”

Maib said that it’s important to water plants enough, but also not too much.

“We’re also seeing some over-watering. People are giving their young plants more than it needs,” he said. “It’s very stressful on the plants to go through either extreme.”

Maib said it’s better to ask for help with plants early.

“Don’t wait until they are looking completely dead before calling the county extension office or a nursery,” he said. “The earlier you catch a problem, the easier it is to solve.”

White River Nursery in southeast Fayetteville is also seeing some effects from the weather.

“Business slows down when it gets hot and dry because people know that newly planted plants need to be watered and people don’t want to plant as much when they can’t get rain,” said employee Karen Stuthard. “It was a little slower in May because we had an early, dry spring. But we haven’t had too many complaints of lost plants.”

Some residents will choose to not water their plants and yards but for those who do bring out the sprinklers and irrigation systems, there are ways to keep costs down. Watering plants properly will save water and will prevent high replacement costs. The key is to get water to the plant’s roots, according to local experts.

“On established plants, don’t give frequent waters. Give deeper, less frequent watering,” Maib said. “On newer plants do a slow drip.”

There are other ways to save on water usage, Fortenberry said. For example, be mindful of where sprinklers are placed so that they are only watering what needs to be watered.

“Don’t water the sidewalk,” he said.

Another suggestion from Fortenberry is to park cars in the grass when washing them so the water runoff will also water the yard.