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Highest users could see 500 percent increase on water bills

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Friday, May 31, 2013, at 8:22 p.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2013, at 2:53 p.m.

Now that city officials have grabbed your attention with a proposed $1,000 fine for using too much water, they will be presenting an additional option to the Wichita City Council on Tuesday that will punish those who use the most water.

Among the things the council also will be considering – in response to the drought that has greatly diminished the water supply from Cheney Reservoir – is a plan that calls for a 500 percent increase for the highest water users.

That option was developed at the request of the city’s water advisory committee after it heard a public works proposal that called for a $1,000-per-month fine for anyone who exceeds 310 percent of their average winter water usage.

The council will still consider the fine option, but the committee thought the penalty-based approach “too regressive on residential customers,” according to a city document.

There also were concerns about having the same penalty apply to a customer who uses one gallon more than the limit as well as a customer who uses 10,000 gallons over the limit, the document said.

The second option also is designed to drive down outdoor water usage. But it will do it by increasing the rate paid by those who reach the highest level of water usage, or tier three.

The current third-tier rate for Wichita customers is $8.56 per 1,000 gallons. The proposal calls for an increase to $51.36 for each 1,000 gallons used above the 310 percent of average winter consumption, the city document said.

That average is figured from usage during the months of December through March.

The second option will still have a major impact on a customer, just like the penalty approach, the document said. The main difference is that it is gradual, in that the customer who uses 1,000 gallons more will pay a smaller premium for the extra water than the customer who uses 10,000 gallons.

Cheney Reservoir, which provides 60 to 65 percent of the water used by Wichita, is running low on water as a result of the drought.

“The Wichita region is currently in a third year of drought,” Ben Nelson, a public works official who is overseeing the proposals, said Friday. “Right now, we don’t know how long it’ll last or if it will be any more severe than it is so far.”

As of Friday morning, Cheney’s conservation pool, which is where Wichita draws its water, was at 70 percent capacity. It hasn’t been at 100 percent since February 2011, Nelson said.

In February of this year, the pool was at 58 percent and the city said it would take 10 to 15 inches of above-normal rainfall for a year to get it to 100 percent. Friday, Nelson said it hasn’t been determined how much rain it would take for the pool to reach capacity.

Nelson said he didn’t want to get too specific with numbers because there is a chance for more rain this weekend and runoff water from this week’s storms is still draining into Cheney.

“Some details won’t be finalized until Tuesday,” he said.

Reno County, which is a big part of feeding water into Cheney, received 4 to 6 inches of rain over a two-day period this week, according to Chance Hayes, warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Wichita.

For the year, Wichita is 2.33 inches above normal.

That’s not enough to end the drought, Hayes said, “but it helps.”

Nelson acknowledged that increased precipitation and lower temperatures so far this year have improved conditions.

But he warned, “It’s a start, not the end.”

In addition to the two options, the council will consider taking other steps to address the water problem. Those include:

• A $1 million rebate program for customers who voluntarily reduce their water usage through high-efficiency appliances, low-flow fixtures and smart sensors on irrigation systems.

• Reducing water allocation from Cheney. That would require approving a $5 million well-field modification project to lower the pumps in the Equus Beds, where the city gets about 40 percent of its water, as well as spending $1.4 million to modify the water treatment plant so it would only use water from the Equus Beds.

The council also will discuss possible plans for using water from El Dorado Reservoir and hear how the city plans to reduce water usage by three departments – public works, fire and park and recreation, Nelson said.

The city developed its proposals from public input that saw about 1,000 people respond at more than 30 community meetings, in four focus groups and through an online survey.

Contributing: Stan Finger of The Eagle

Reach Rick Plumlee at 316-268-6660 or rplumlee@wichitaeagle.com.

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