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Voluntary water restrictions show importance of protecting streamflow

Lower Platte River flows at their lowest since 1956, as drought depletes groundwater

Recently, the city of Lincoln issued voluntary water conservation guidelines due to the ongoing drought. Guidelines focus on outdoor water use on certain days – such as refraining from watering lawns or filling pools – as the primary way people can conserve water.  

According to the Lincoln Water System, “dry conditions have depleted the aquifer that supplies Lincoln's wellfield to only 65% of capacity and Platte River flows are at their lowest since 1956.” 

Audubon Great Plains and partners are currently involved in a Nebraska-led drought planning effort for the Platte River that is intended to consider the wide-ranging impacts of drought on agricultural producers, communities, and ecosystems. These pre-planning efforts are critical to the future health of the Platte River because they allow people with different priorities to share how drought impacts their way of life, and allows them to think creatively about mutually beneficial solutions before the next big drought hits. One way we are advocating for this is by opposing the proposed Platte-Republican Diversion, which would divert up to 10,000 acre/feet of Platte River water upstream of Audubon’s Rowe Sanctuary and transport it to the Republican River Basin. As we are seeing in the lower Platte right now, protecting streamflow for the birds and other wildlife that rely on it also protects the residents of the Platte’s watersheds.  

Last summer, flows on the Platte were the lowest seen in over a decade and it will be a long time before we recover from all the impacts. Although there may be times when streamflow coming down the Platte River is in excess of established water rights, the hydrology of the Platte allows these flows to replenish underlying aquifers – where the majority of Nebraska communities obtain water for household, agricultural, and industrial use. Especially when these flows occur in the midst of ongoing drought, they are not wasted, but restore the watershed and support over-stressed habitat and wildlife.  

As we come out of an exceptionally dry year, with our soil moisture depleted and aquifer levels low, this exactly when we need to be vigilant and do what we can to support our watersheds. The Platte River supports our way of life, it supports our communities and the unique ecosystems. Voluntary water restrictions are a great way to do that, while long-term actions are necessary. 

In addition to collaborating with water users and communities throughout the state, Audubon also stresses the need to be forward-thinking in water management policies to ensure that the flexibility exists for citizens to be resilient in the face of the increasingly intense droughts that will come with climate change. 

Lincoln’s water conservation guidelines are perfectly reasonable – like tips for bringing native pollinators to your garden or growing native prairie plants that can withstand droughts. Individual conservation steps like this are often multi-functional; planting natives conserves water, enriches the soil, and creates habitat. But droughts are becoming more extreme. Without proper planning, we could face years where simple conservation measures are just not enough. The river is also habitat for the endangered and threatened species such as the Piping Plover, as well as other important species like the Interior Least Tern. 

What you can do

There are plenty of short- and long-term steps you can take to decrease your own water needs. First, we encourage you to plant native flowers and grasses, which require less water and are tolerant of extreme weather conditions. When purchasing plants, look for natives instead of varietals with branded names, which are often in quotes on plant labels; for example: choose common sunflowers over ‘Big Bear’ sunflowers. Native plants are absolutely key for creating habitats for birds, which is especially important in urban and suburban areas. 

Tips for Green Lawns: 

  • Limit watering lawns and gardens to three days per week (see Lincoln’s recommendations here) 
  • Deep watering once per week is better for garden plants and lawns than short waterings multiple times per week 
  • Water gardens and lawns early in the morning to minimize evaporation 
  • Lawns usually need less than 1 ½ inch of moisture per week, even in extreme heat 

Water-Conscious Gardening: 

  • Plant native grasses and wildflowers that require less water and are tolerant of extreme weather 
  • Using mulch around plants prevents evaporation, keeps soil at a more consistent temperature, and keeps weeds from competing with beneficial plants 
  • Do not fertilize plants during droughts or in extreme heat 
  • Plants in the shade need less water than plants in sunny areas 
  • Group plants that require more moisture together 
  • Plants in clay soils are often overwatered 

Recommended native perennials:  

  • Beebalm or Wild Bergamot 
  • Black-eyed Susan 
  • Blue Sage or Pitcher Sage
  • Coneflower
  • Goldenrod 
  • Milkweed, several types are native 
  • Yarrow 

Recommended native grasses: 

  • Blue Grama 
  • Little Bluestem 
  • Prairie Dropseed 
  • Side-oats Grama  
  • Wand Panic grass 

Click here to create a custom native plants list 

How you can help, right now