Dryer straits: Drought, facilities force county-wide water conservation effort

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, July 4, 2006

It&8217;s been a difficult summer for Alabaster Water Manager Pete Lucas.

Contaminated wells, drought-like weather and the high demand for water that accompanies summer months have left Lucas and other local water officials across Shelby County searching for solutions to low water levels on both a city and county wide level.

&8220;It&8217;s been a tough couple of months for us,&8221; Lucas admitted. &8220;This is not a place that anyone wants to be in.&8221;

On June 12, Alabaster became the first Shelby County municipality to place mandatory water restrictions on its residents. Soon after, the Shelby County commission followed suit with a request that residents observe voluntary watering restrictions.

The restrictions call for households with even number addresses to water outside on Monday and Thursday between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. Odd number addresses are being asked to water during the same hours on Tuesday and Friday. The plan calls Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday to be used as a time for water systems to recover and replenish across the county.

&8220;The conservation program was designed to avoid so many people using water at the same time,&8221; Shelby County utilities manager Charles Lay said. &8220;By staggering usage we&8217;re hoping to take some of the load off the system and give it time to catch up.&8221; The restrictions remain in effect until Oct. 1.

The root of the problem

According to Lucas, a mixture of age, soil composition and bad timing has contributed to Alabaster&8217;s current plight.

&8220;All three of the cities wells were built in the 50s and 60s,&8221; Lucas said.

&8220;On January 13, we realized that well No. 1 had been impacted by surface water.&8221;

Lucas said that while the water seeping into the system is unacceptable, the limestone-based soil found throughout Shelby County does nothing to help the problem.

&8220;It&8217;s the nature of the area that we live in,&8221; Lucas said. &8220;It can happen anytime, anywhere that the ground composition is right for water to move through it easily.&8221;

Lucas said while the city tested the No. 1 well early in the year, it shut down well No. 2 as a precautionary measure. Since then, well No. 2 was brought back online in April while No. 1 still remains unusable.

The lack of rain has not made Alabaster&8217;s water problem, or that of the entire county, any easier, Lucas said.

&8220;Everybody is having problems because of the lack of rain,&8221; he said. &8220;It just makes our problem that much worse.&8221;

Lay said Shelby County&8217;s water shortages are directly related to a lack of rain, which causes citizens to rely more heavily on the local water supply to keep their lawns green.

&8220;The frequency of the rain is definitely a problem,&8221; he said. &8220;We had a period in May and June with 29 days where we only had to very small rains. That resulted in a very high water demand.&8221;

A solution with a price tag

Both Alabaster and Shelby County are investing large sums of money in the coming years to ensure that current residents have an ample supply of water and to keep up with the growing demand for water created by people moving in to the area.

The city of Alabaster recently purchased a water filtration system, at a price of $470,000, with the hopes that the system will help its water wells return to full strength.

Running at full capacity, the new system will be able to cleanse one million gallons of water a day.

&8220;We have to have it,&8221; Lucas said. &8220;And thankfully we have the money to buy it.&8221;

The system will help bring the city&8217;s No. 1 well back online on an emergency basis to begin with, and eventually be put to full-time use within a year.

In addition, the city has also contracted with Bessemer to begin receiving water in the summer of 2007.

&8220;Once we have this system up can going and we&8217;re set with Bessemer, we&8217;ll be in great shape,&8221; Lucas said.

Shelby County will invest over $80 million over the next few years to ensure its customers have enough water – in the form of a new 16 million gallon water treatment plant along the Coosa River near Wilsonville.

Lay said the plant, which is being built by BL Harbert International and is scheduled to open in January 2008, would keep

Shelby County well ahead of its water needs for years to come.

&8220;We&8217;ll have ample supply for our customers for a long time,&8221; he said.

Conservation is working

Both Lucas and Lay said that conservation efforts have had a positive affect on the shortages.

&8220;There&8217;s no question we can tell that people are trying,&8221; Lay said. &8220;We&8217;re still using a lot of water, but things are a lot better than they were a month ago.&8221;

Both men encouraged residents to continue cutting down on their water usage.

&8220;We appreciate the community&8217;s efforts,&8221; Lucas said. &8220;We&8217;re seeing a change in the system that will hopefully continue.&8221;