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City officials restrict water usage as growth set to outpace water access

By Garrett Ammesmaki

The City of Tea has set water restrictions on residents as usage is on course to outpace their guaranteed amount from Lewis & Clark in the coming years.

“(The restriction) is a reminder to everyone that we have to start watching our water use,” said City Administrator Dan Zulkosky. “Rather than doing a full-blown restriction, we are just asking for residents to refrain from watering their lawns between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m.”

Zulkosky said the partial restriction could result in saving anywhere between 100,000 to 200,000 gallons of water per day. Those savings could allow the city more breathing room and prevent any interruptions to fire services in the midst of drought and tremendous growth.

“The most important thing (when it comes to water access) isn’t necessarily drinking water,” Zulkosky said. “It’s fire protection — that’s the number one issue.”

The amount of water used to fight a fire varies widely depending on the size of the fire, when it is noticed, and how long it burns before a fire crew can reach it, according to Tea Fire Chief Steve Oberle.

A dumpster fire may only take around 500 gallons, but a structure fire could take much more, he said.

The latest structure fire the department responded to occurred late last year on Highway 17, south of 269th Street, Oberle said. He estimated that they used between 2,000 to 3,000 gallons of water to combat the blaze, which was contained to the garage and didn’t spread into the attached house.

With any shortage or interruption of water availability, unchecked fires could spell a much larger problem for residents.

For anyone who is upset about the restriction, Zulkosky didn’t mince words.

“I’ll give you two choices, you make the call — do you want beautiful green grass or do you want to watch your house burn down?” he said.

A possible restriction was talked about at the Tea City Council meeting on June 20, and the decision was announced via the city’s Facebook page on June 22. Any residents who don’t abide by the restriction face a $150 fine.

Currently, Tea is guaranteed roughly 1.1 million gallons of water per day from Lewis & Clark, according to a previous article by the Tea Weekly. The city’s usage has fluctuated above 800,000 gallons per day as of late.

According to Troy Larson, executive director at Lewis & Clark Regional Water System, for the month of June 2021, Tea averaged a water usage of 837,461 gallons per day.

“At 850,000 gallons, we start to get nervous,” Zulkosky said.

With a growth rate of eight percent per year, Tea is one of the fastest growing communities in South Dakota, Zulkosky said. That growth requires more water in the future, and Tea’s only water supply is currently the guaranteed allotment they receive through Lewis & Clark.

Lewis & Clark has expedited an expansion to its base system that would increase Tea’s guaranteed water supply by roughly 650,000 gallons per day, Larson said. But with an expected completion date being in 2030, Tea won’t see any of that extra water anytime soon.

“It’s an all or nothing deal,” Larson said. “We need 100 percent of the expansion to be complete before we can deliver one drop of the excess capacity.”

Lewis & Clark isn’t the “end-all-be-all” in terms of water access for Tea, but it is the soul supplier of water to the city at the moment, and with the need to source more water being clear, a restriction is only one of the steps that the city is taking to solve the problem.

There are around 20 cities and towns that make up the members of Lewis & Clark, and they are all guaranteed a certain amount of water, according to Larson. Any unused capacity from a city’s allotment can be purchased by other members. Those memberships are spread across Minnesota, Iowa, and South Dakota.

So far, Zulkosky said he has reached out to members that include Lincoln County Rural Water, Centerville, among others, to see if they have any excess capacity that can be purchased and help carry Tea through until the expansion on Lewis & Clark is complete.

The purchasing of unused capacity isn’t uncommon. Why it is so striking for Tea, is that in 2008 the city wasn’t even using half of their allotment.

In fact, Zulkosky said, back when Tea reserved their 1.101 million capacity from Lewis & Clark in the year 2000, “everyone laughed at us.”

Members of the Tea City Council “were very prophetic,” according to Larson, which wasn’t the case for other members of Lewis & Clark.

“The real cautionary tale is Harrisburg,” he said.

Harrisburg only reserved 250,000 gallons initially, but increased that to 440,000 gallons in 00’. Now, Harrisburg is using between 2 to 3 million gallons per day, Larson said.

The situation in Tea is the “canary in the coal mine” when it comes to a looming threat of water access in the area, according to Larson.

Lincoln County has been experiencing drought conditions on and off for the last two years, according to the National Weather Service.

The current run of severe drought conditions began at the beginning of May for Lincoln County, said Jeff Chapman, meteorologist for NWS/Sioux Falls. And the seasonal outlooks show warmer and drier conditions that are “tilted” toward continuing through September.

“What we’re talking about here is a combination of drought and growth, and Tea is seeing tremendous growth alongside other communities,” he said. “When combined, that’s a perfect storm when it comes to water access.”

“As water becomes more scarce, there will be even more deals made, and it’s good that Tea is getting out there early,” Larson said.

“So much depends on the weather,” he added, “but given their track record in the past, I have no doubt that Tea will be successful.”


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