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Thursday, July 10, 2014

Relentless heat keeps melting Wichita records

By Stan Finger
The Wichita Eagle

Correction: A previous version of this story indicated the incorrect amount of feet the water level at Cheney Reservoir was down.

Remember during last year’s scorching summer, when meteorologists assured folks that there wouldn’t be another harsh summer this time around?

Well...

“I guess we won’t be saying that again,” said Mick McGuire, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Wichita.

Wichita hit 111 degrees for the second day in a row, breaking the record of 110 set for July 30 in 1986. Temperatures Tuesday and Wednesday are predicted to reach 111 again in downtown Wichita.

Five people in Kansas have died this summer from heat-related ailments, according to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment — all of them in western Kansas.

Wesley Medical Center has seen a handful of patients with heat-related illnesses in the past week, spokeswoman Susan Burchill said. Via Christi Hospital had a couple of heat-related admissions on Sunday but none on Monday, spokeswoman Kimberly Oates said.

While this summer hasn’t produced as many triple-digit temperatures as 2011 had by this date, the two summers are standing shoulder-to-shoulder in one key respect: average high temperature in July.

Last year averaged 102.4, good for third on the all-time list.

Through July 29, this year’s average July high was 101.8. That’s good for fourth.

Monday marked the 27th day of 100-degree heat this year. Last year saw 53 days of triple-digit temperatures.

Combined, the two summers have the most 100 degree days in back-to-back years since records began being kept for Wichita in the late 1880s. The previous mark was 72 triple-digit days set in 1936-37.

So is this the new normal for a Wichita summer?

“That’s the big question,” McGuire said.

Local meteorologists answer with a firm “no.”

“Climate is calculated over a 30-year period, not two,” McGuire said.

Looking back several decades, AccuWeather vice president Mike Smith said, clear patterns are evident.

“We seem to, every 20 to 30 years, have periods where our summers run hot,” he said. “This goes way back to the 1880s.

“Given that we seem to have these clusters of very warm years, it’s normal in the sense that we get those clusters. It’s not something I would expect to be going on 7 or 8 years from now.”

Water limits

Wichita hasn’t imposed water restrictions this summer, but several cities around the state have. Ellsworth on Monday banned all outdoor watering.

“I’d rather have drinking water than have my neighbor pour it on their grass,” Ellsworth City Treasurer Angela Mueller said of the watering ban, the first in her 18 years of working for the city.

Russell now permits just one day of outdoor watering per week, and it must be done before 10 a.m. or after 9 p.m.

Augusta allows residents to water two days a week, from 4 to 8 a.m. and 7 to 10 p.m., with their addresses determining which days they can water. Mulvane, which gets its water from Augusta, has adopted the same watering system: two days a week, with defined watering windows in the morning and evening.

Wichita has not implemented watering restrictions, city officials said.

The city gets about 60 percent of its water from Cheney Reservoir, which has seen its water levels drop this summer. On Monday, Cheney was about 75 percent full, with water levels down 4 feet.

“A prolonged period of hot, dry weather like this could begin to dry out the reservoir, but it isn’t yet affecting our ability to provide water because we also draw on local well fields,” said Ben Nelson, strategic services manager for the Department of Public Works and Utilities in an e-mail response to questions.

The city pumps an average of 60 million gallons a day, but has pumped more than 96 million gallons a day this July — an increase of more than 50 percent, Nelson said.

Over this past weekend, the city pumped more than 105 million gallons each day. But that’s still well below the system capacity of 160 million gallons a day.

Westar has thus far been handling this summer’s heat in stride, officials said.

“We have not, to date, had any outages attributable to the increased demand for power by our customers,” Westar Energy spokesman Shane Batchelder said in an e-mail response to questions. “All heat-related outages have been as a result of equipment being exposed to the extreme conditions for extended periods of time while in use.”

About 450 Westar customers in the western part of the city lost electrical power for several hours Sunday night due to equipment failure, and about 500 customers, primarily in the College Hill area, lost power for about an hour late last week. But Westar hasn’t set any new peaks for usage, Batchelder said.

Sticking around

Demand for water and power is expected to remain high for an extended period. Forecasters are calling for triple digits to persist through the rest of the week. After a bit of a cool-down over the weekend, the 100s are expected to return next week.

“It’s going to build back with a vengeance, with a return to that 105 range at least through the middle of next week,” McGuire said.

It’ll be hotter still in downtown Wichita, where AccuWeather was calling for highs of 111 each of the next two days and only a modest drop in projected highs the rest of the work week.

Those higher temperatures for downtown can be blamed on the “heat island” effect, Smith said. The asphalt and concrete are efficient radiators of the heat back into the atmosphere, raising temperatures at the surface.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center isn’t offering pleasant reading, either. The outlook for August calls for above normal temperatures in all of Kansas, and well-above-normal temperatures for the eastern third of the state.

“It looks,” McGuire said, “like it’s going to be around for a while.”

Reach Stan Finger at 316-268-6437 or sfinger@wichitaeagle.com.

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