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Wichita weighing water-use restrictions as Cheney Reservoir supply shrinks

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Monday, Jan. 14, 2013, at 8:57 p.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2013, at 2:53 p.m.

After two years of a prolonged drought that’s knocked water levels down 40 percent at Cheney Reservoir – where Wichita draws much of its water supply – and with no significant rain or snow in sight, Wichita city officials are now considering water restrictions.

The City Council is expected to hear options during the council workshop meeting on Feb. 26.

“It’s too early to say what those options will be,” said Ben Nelson, strategic services manager for Wichita’s public works and utilities department.

The department is looking at options, he said, and “how best to prolong our water supplies until rain can come down for us. And hopefully, we won’t have as many 100-degree days that put a strain on the system.”

It has been nearly 20 years since Wichita placed any water use restrictions on its residents.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture declared a drought disaster in 104 of Kansas’ 105 counties. Eighty-eight counties, including Sedgwick, are primary disaster areas – meaning they have been under a severe drought for at least 8 consecutive weeks.

Last week, Gov. Sam Brownback encouraged all cities in Kansas to evaluate how they could reduce water use to minimize the impact of the drought.

Wichita last placed water restrictions on its residents in the early 1990s. The problem then wasn’t a shortage of water, but the city’s inability to treat and pump enough water to keep up with demand. At that time, the city restricted outdoor water use and put people on a three-day rotation using odd- and even-number addresses to let people know what days they could water their lawns.

In recent years, cities such as Salina and Hays, which have faced water shortages, have placed water restrictions on their residents by prohibiting them from watering lawns or washing cars.

Wichita has tried to limit demand for water by charging more for those using the most water in the summer.

“There are times when we have peaks in water usage,” Nelson said. “That usually is when people are watering to keep their trees, flowers, lawns and gardens alive. They water in the mornings and evenings and we will get high loads.”

The rates are divided into three increments. The rate blocks are based on an average of water usage during the winter months which, Nelson said, is a reliable gauge of how much residents use water indoors.

Those who use just 10 percent more water in the summer than the winter pay $1.63 per 1,000 gallons of water.

Those who more than triple the amount of water they use in the summer are charged $8.56 per 1,000 gallons.

And those in the middle pay $5.87 per 1,000 gallons.

The rate increases were designed to be a deterrent for consumers who were using their water to fill pools, wash cars and water lawns rather than for life-sustaining purposes, Nelson said. The rates promote conservation by charging less for non-discretionary consumption.

“They are the kinds of things that, if needed, you could cut back on and still survive,” he said.

During the summer months, Wichitans typically use about 100 million gallons a day.

The peak was in 2006 when 120 million gallons were used one August day.

“I think we all should be concerned if the drought continues,” said City Council member Jeff Longwell. “Water is a contributing factor in economic development and growth. I certainly want Wichita to be one of the cities that is growing. I am waiting to see what options are presented us. I think we will be looking at several options — even drawing water from El Dorado. If the drought continues, it will affect everyone. It is something we have to pay attention to.”

Since 1993, Wichita has been drawing most of its water from Cheney Reservoir, nearly 65 to 75 percent. The remaining comes from the Equus Beds, well fields north of the city, the remaining 25 to 35 percent.

The council will not vote on a water restriction plan during the Feb. 26 workshop. If City Council members consider placing water restrictions on residents, they would do so later, during a regular council meeting.

Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or btanner@wichitaeagle.com.

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