The state’s plan to give farmers more flexibility for using their water has city of Wichita officials concerned about the effect it could have on the Equus Beds Aquifer.
Drawing too much water from the aquifer in one year or two — even if the total amount is averaged out over five years — could cause salt water to leak into some of the 55 wells the city has in the aquifer and cause more money to be spent on cleaning up the water for drinking, city officials say.
The plan was approved by the state Legislature last spring as part of several measures to help protect the state’s water resources. It’s way too early to determine the effect. Regulations for the plan are still being finalized and will get input from the city.
The Wichita City Council recently approved spending nearly $155,000 to hire a consulting firm to do studies and develop numerous scenarios that could result from the plan. Those scenarios will be presented to the state later this year to help refine the regulations and help the city avoid any problems.
“We don’t know what the impact will be,” said Mike Jacobs, a special projects engineer for the city. “We think it’s probably not good for the aquifer to do this. But until we do the work, I can’t demonstrate that. We wouldn’t be doing this if we thought there wouldn’t be a problem.”
State water officials started developing the voluntary plan in the summer of 2011 as the drought began what has been a two-year grip so far. The plan allows water-rights holders to spread out their allotted water over a five-year period based upon an annual historic average use.
More than 86 percent of the 33,000 water-rights holders in the state use the water for agricultural irrigation. Cities are the second-highest user at just under 9 percent.
Any rights holder could use the plan, but it is designed for agriculture irrigators.
Under the plan, irrigators may choose to space out their water evenly at 20 percent each of the five years. Or perhaps use a higher percentage in one year when in the midst of a drought.
The plan is designed not to cause problems for existing rights holders, such as the city.
But city officials are concerned the plan may create too much fluctuation in some years and damage the water’s quality. When an aquifer report is released later this month, Jacobs said he expects the aquifer to be as low or lower as it has ever been.
Plans are being developed to drill different levels of some existing wells to draw optimum water quality and quantity, he added.
The city averages using 22 billion gallons of water a year. It gets 40 percent of that from the aquifer and 60 percent from the Cheney Reservoir.
Drilling additional wells or spending more money to clean up water contaminated by salt could eventually drive up water rates for the city’s customers.
“That’s getting down the line a ways,” said Alan King, the city’s public works and utilities director. “We could ultimately get to that place. Right now, we’re more interested in administrative practices that would protect our existing system.
“If we should find where we are impacted and there are flat-out no administrative fixes, then we’ll look at things like putting in deeper wells, more wells. But we’re not anywhere near that.”
By signing up for the new flexible plan, irrigators put aside their normal base use and follow the plan for five-year periods. There is a $400 application charge.
A previous flex plan started more than 10 years ago was too conservative, and producers couldn’t make it work, said Lane Letourneau, the state’s program manager for water appropriation.
The revised plan that began last year allows a rights holder to use the greater amount of water resulting from two different formulas:
• Five times the average annual use of the water right from 2000-2009.
• Five times the county’s net irrigation requirement for corn times the acres irrigated times 110 percent.
Corn is used because it requires more water, Letourneau said.
Only 753 rights holders signed up for the plan last year, but Letourneau said he expects more will as they become aware of it.
The deadline to sign up for the plan each year is Oct. 1, which allows the farmer more time during the growing season to determine how much water he’ll need.
If a farmer knows he needs to draw more water in one year, he can also adjust his crops the next year so they require less water, Letourneau said, such as planting a short-season corn or not planting as many seeds.
“Our producers are a really smart group of people,” he said. “They know how to manage the water. They just need to know how much water they get. I have a lot of faith in these guys.”
Wet years are needed during the five-year stretch to help balance out drought years.
“You bet,” Letourneau said. “We’re telling everybody to plan an outdoor wedding because we need rain.”
Meters are on all wells so the state will know how much is pumped out. Under the flex plan, there is a fine and water-use penalty if someone draws more than they are allotted for the five years.
In refining the regulations, the fine has already been increased from $500 to $1,000. The violator also won’t be allowed to pump twice the amount of the overuse for the next year, Letourneau said.
Officials also hope to tweak the plan further by allowing irrigators to carry up to 20 percent of the five-year allotment over to a new five-year plan, if they sign up for another one.
“We don’t want people to feel like they have to use it or lose it,” Letourneau said. “So if somebody was stingy with their water, we want to give that producer flexibility to carry some of that water over to the next flex account. The first few inches is a lot more valuable than the last inches.”