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Wichita City Council may get tough with heavy water users

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013, at 9:07 p.m.
  • Updated Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014, at 9 a.m.

WHAT DO YOU THINK?

How would higher water rates in Wichita affect your business?


Options for the city

If the drought continues, the city will run short of water by August 2015. Here are some options the city is considering:

Option 1: A public relations campaign to ask residents to voluntarily reduce water use. This would extend the city’s water supply by about three weeks.

Option 2: Increase rates to reduce outdoor water such as watering lawns and filling swimming pools by 50 percent. Heavy water users could see rate increases of 113 percent. This would extend the city’s water supply by 7 months.

Option 3: Eliminate outdoor water use in Wichita by pushing rates even higher. Big users would see rate increases of almost 250 percent - large enough to potentially run major commercial users, like golf courses and greenhouses, out of business. This would extend the city’s water supply by 21 months.

Option 4: Spend $5 million to modify the wells in the Equus Beds to pump more water from the aquifer. This would extend the city’s water supply by 22 months.

How would you be affected?

Tell us how the city’s proposed plans to reduce water use would affect you. Go to kansas.com/publicinsight and help us cover this story. The Public Insight Network is a partnership between journalists and readers who are willing to help inform news coverage. We promise to read everything you submit. We won’t use your name without your permission.

If you love a lush green lawn or those warm summer nights in your private swimming pool, the cost of those luxuries appears poised to increase sharply in Wichita.

Wichita City Council members spent 90 minutes Tuesday morning sorting through some grim and potentially expensive conservation measures. Cheney Reservoir, the source of 60 percent of the city’s water, could dry up by mid-2015 if the drought continues. If that happens, the city will no longer have enough water to meet demand.

Council members could act on the conservation measures as early as next week, changing temporarily the way Wichitans use water outdoors until the drought ends.

And don’t look to the dual snowstorms of the past week for much help. City officials said it would take 6 to 10 inches of rain above the normal amount to refill the reservoir.

The centerpiece of the city’s water conservation recommendations is a direct move against lawn watering and outdoor recreational water use, such as gardening and swimming pools, with a “punitive pricing” schedule that will jack up water rates by 113 percent for some users who exceed their average winter water usage.

Someone who uses 22,500 gallons of water a month in the summer and currently pays $151 would pay $321.59, an increase of 113 percent, according to information presented Tuesday morning by Alan King, the city’s public works director. A household that uses 15,000 gallons a month would see the bill increase from $96 to $146.

The goal of the rate hike is to lower summer outdoor water use in Wichita by at least 50 percent, King said — although the recommendations would not restrict commercial users, like the city’s golf courses, Botanica or businesses. They could, however, pay higher costs.

If council members opt for more punitive measures, like trying to end all outdoor water use, that $151 bill would become $488.61. The city warned that this option would have severe effects on 12 golf courses, Botanica, car washes and companies doing construction work.

There are no immediate plans to raise water rates for households that use little water outdoors, unless some measures reduce water use so much that it creates large shortfalls in the water department’s projected revenue.

Other recommendations to the council Tuesday included a public relations campaign to encourage Wichitans to voluntarily conserve water and a $5 million project to enhance the city’s Equus Beds well field in the Halstead area, drilling deeper pumps and replacing pumps to get more water out of the aquifer.

Taking more water from the Equus Beds would come at a steep price for the city’s antiquated water and sewer infrastructure: The $5 million plan to enhance the Equus Beds well field will be paid for from $6.5 million in additional water revenue generated last summer during the drought, spelling a quick end to the city’s plans to begin aggressively replacing and repairing water and sewer lines across the city.

“We would have money to do repair work, but not the money to emphasize replacements that we’ve been talking about the last 12 to 18 months,” City Manager Robert Layton said. “We have infrastructure problems. What we are talking to you about today are the best of bad options.

“There’s no doubt this puts us further behind the eight ball,” the city manager said. “But I don’t have a good solution unless you’re talking further trimming the budget.”

Several long-term answers to the water shortage also were discussed, including a possible deal to take water from El Dorado Reservoir — where 25 years of adequate water supply exists — and pipe it to Wichita. Another option is a five-year project to build a desalinization plant to process groundwater too salty to use. The price tag for the plant is $200 million, but it could essentially double the amount of water available to the city.

Council member Jeff Longwell dubbed the rate hikes “punitive pricing,” an unnecessary move, he said, when the city is realizing an extra $6 million to $9 million a summer in water revenues from the drought and has not fully explored other alternatives to extend the life of its water supply.

But Vice Mayor Janet Miller said she wants to move forward with conservation measures.

“I guess I would have concern about any strategy we choose if we limit ourselves to only new supplies of water, and don’t take a serious look at ways to encourage people to reduce usage and conserve water,” Miller said.

Council member Paul Gray said he thought the punitive pricing schedule could drive city water customers to dig private water wells, creating further revenue problems for the water department.

“If we advance (rates) by 300 percent, those are the individuals who can afford that and they have alternatives,” he said. “If you’re spending $150 a month more for water, then you can afford to sink a well in your backyard to get your own irrigation.

“I do think at some point in time ... they will dissolve themselves from the (city’s water customer) pool by going with another option.”

Reach Bill Wilson at 316-268-6290 or bwilson@wichitaeagle.com.

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