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City of Wichita shies from water rate hike after outcry

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, March 17, 2013, at 7:46 p.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2013, at 5:26 p.m.

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 watering, 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 seven 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.

City officials have put a plan to raise water rates this spring on hold following public outcry.

In late February, city public works officials said Cheney Reservoir, the source of 60 percent of the city’s water, would go dry by August 2015 if the drought continues.

To conserve water, the city proposed what some City Council members call “punitive” water rates that would force water bills up 50 percent – and in some cases by more than 100 percent – for households that water lawns and gardens or fill swimming pools in the summer. Under the proposal, a family that uses 22,500 gallons of water a month would see its water bill go from $151 to $322 a month.

Council members said they’ve been busy fielding public complaints about the possible rate hikes, both in-office and on the campaign trail.

So city officials are preparing to take Wichita’s potential water shortage to the public, educating residents on ways to save water and holding district advisory board meetings to find out what the ratepayers want the city to do.

City Manager Bob Layton plans to start taking most major city decisions directly to taxpayers for input and to create an office of community engagement.

Vice Mayor Janet Miller said a partnership between residents and the city, through public meetings, produced the renewed emphasis on customer service that allowed the city to keep its five public golf courses open.

“It’s going to be an opportunity to sort through the solutions we’ve developed from staff, and no doubt to hear some possible solutions that we haven’t worked through,” Miller said.

Council member Jeff Longwell said any solution the council chooses must come after a heavy dose of input from residents.

“I frankly don’t think the citizens are going to tolerate punitive water rates to force conservation,” Longwell said. “Just the thought of instituting punitive pricing will do the opposite of what we want to achieve. I guarantee you if we get this kind of pricing out there where some bills are going to go up 113 percent, it’s going to drive people into putting wells down, and they will never conserve.”

Longwell said he and other council members weren’t happy when the public works department urged them during a Feb. 26 workshop to make a decision within a week.

“This decision is just too important to rush,” he said. “There’s no simple solution. We know that, but water is so critical to our growth and the simple, basic fiber of the city that we’ve got to do this right and we’ve got to get this right. I’m tired of seeing issues like this circulate in city staff for awhile, then come to us with two or three decisions and a demand for a vote.”

Julie Fritsch described a visceral reaction when the punitive water rate proposal was announced a couple of weeks ago.

“To tell you the truth, I got mad instantly when I heard about it,” she said.

Fritsch, a homebound mother of five whose husband has a disability, relies on the family’s above-ground pool for cheap, travel-free entertainment for her kids in the summer. The family also uses water to grow flowers and vegetables and to wash their cars.

“We would not be able to fill our pool this summer” if the city opts for punitive water rate pricing, Fritsch said.

“We don’t have a big pool, just an above-ground pool big enough for the kids to play around in it,” she said. “On days it is too hot to play outside, they almost live in it. Without the pool, the kids will resort to staying inside and being on their electronics from dawn until dusk.”

There’s absolutely no flexibility in the Fritsch family budget to pay more to fill the pool, she said.

“We live on a fixed income, so filling the pool would not be an option for us,” she said.

Several Wichitans, including Michael Faulkner and Tiffany Broberg, said the water shortage poses a different problem: forcing families who live in subdivisions that require green lawns to pay spiraling water rates.

Like Fritsch, Broberg said the punitive water rates will force her to make choices between summertime activities for her children, food or complying with the green grass mandates from her homeowners’ association.

“We would have to just let the lawn go, essentially wasting all of the years and water that have already gone into maintaining it,” Broberg said. “It would no longer be an affordable option to keep the lawn quasi-green. I’m not going to, for example, cancel our kids’ activities or cut back on groceries to have a green lawn.”

The Broberg family has already launched its own water conservation measures during the first two years of the drought – “Our lawn is barely green,” Broberg said – driven by water bills topping $270 per month last summer. In Faulkner’s neighborhood, covenants require homeowners to seed, water and mow grass.

“Covenants also require yards to be at least 80 percent grass,” he said. “We must have water for lawns. ... Wichita must increase its water supply.”

Faulkner said parliamentary rules in his homeowners’ association require 75 percent of voters to approve a change to covenants, making rolling back those lawn restrictions “almost impossible.”

“It’s frustrating that our HOA requires 80 percent lawn in the front yard of the residents, prohibiting rock gardens, etc., that would be more environmentally friendly, if not as eye-pleasing,” Broberg said.

“It’s also frustrating watching our neighbors with wells water their lawns twice daily, having gorgeous lawns while we struggle with water.”

Miller said the city would hesitate to jump into the covenant debate by outlawing green grass requirements.

“If you want those covenants changed, then get involved and change them,” she said. “How enforceable are some of them, anyway?”

Broberg touts her experience with water conservation in other cities, urging city officials to look at all water users – well owners, businesses and industrial users – and not just homeowners.

“I have lived in so many other cities outside of Kansas that are able to effectively conserve water,” she said, “but it relies on smarter water use for everyone, not just residents.”

She suggests regulating various types of business water use, including restricting lawn watering between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. daily and limiting washing parking lots.

Wichitans who love to spend their summers outside growing things are also worried about increased water rates.

Wichitan Crystal Rowell planned on spending her retirement working in her expanded garden.

“I love the challenge of seeing if I can get things to grow,” she said. “I was a daily gardener. I played in it all the time and I watered every day. I had some really pretty things last year. I just love it.”

She likes to grow everything from vegetables to flowers, but on a retired person’s income she’ll have to shrink or eliminate her garden if water rates spike, she said.

“It would be a really big loss if I wasn’t able to garden,” Rowell said.

Longwell said the city’s best approach is a mixture of conservation measures and finding new water sources.

“We’ve got to address the water issue the way we’ve been addressing flooding on the west side for the last six years,” he said. “There’s no one magic bullet. I’m good with sharing information about a variety of conservation methods, from rain barrels to truly understanding how much water grass needs. And we need more water. Maybe El Dorado Lake is one of the big options. We’ve got to find more water sources, because that’s the only way we’re going to grow this community.”

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

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