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Where will Wichita get future water?

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Saturday, August 3, 2013, at 4:56 p.m.
  • Updated Thursday, April 17, 2014, at 9:08 a.m.

Recent rains may have left the impression that Wichita is off the hook in needing to find new water sources, but city officials say that’s not the case at all.

In fact, current conditions have little to do with the city’s push to identify new water sources and revise its 20-year-old water resource plan.

“It’s not going to be affected by the short range,” said Alan King, director of public works and utilities. “It’s about the long range.”

Just consider: Wichita saw 7.69 inches of rain in July – fourth highest on record for that month.

The record was 13.37 inches of rain in 1950. Then came a soggy 1951 that brought Wichita’s second-highest yearly rainfall with 50.48 inches.

But that was followed by five years of drought so severe that it has become one of the benchmarks for measuring prolonged droughts.

“A single year is not a good indicator of what’s to follow,” King said. “And so much is driven by where you start. We still have a lot of catching up to do when it comes to rain.”

Effects of the drought that began two years ago saw Cheney Reservoir’s conservation pool level – from which the city draws its water – drop to 58 percent full in February. As of noon Friday, rains have helped bring the pool to more than 75 percent and Wichita is almost 4.5 inches above normal rainfall for the year.

But even with all the rain, Cheney’s pool only 2 percent higher than it was in early June. Only last week the area’s drought level was upgraded to moderate from severe, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

So city officials and consultants are working to predict water demands and identify possible new sources for water. They expect to present a plan to the City Council by the end of the summer.

El Dorado Lake figures prominently as a possible future source. Other options include using treated sewer water, storing Cheney’s excess water and cleaning up salty water pulled from wells, which could require building a desalination plant.

The city also could expand its use of the Equus Beds, a sprawling aquifer north of Wichita, and its underground storage facility nearby.

The city draws 60 percent of its water from the Equus Beds and 40 percent from Cheney. Cheney had carried the heavier load until early June, when the city reversed the percentages to protect Cheney’s shrinking water level.

The council could choose to pursue more than one new water source, officials said.

Other sources kicked around include pulling water from a northeast Kansas reservoir and building a new lake, which officials say would cost hundreds of millions of dollars and involve miles of red tape.

But King isn’t ready to dismiss any possibility.

“All options are on the table,” he said. “We’re thinking outside the box and not discounting anything.”

Details of Wichita’s projected water demand are still being developed by Mike Jacobs, the city’s water resources engineer and project manager for the plan, and by two consulting firms, which the council approved hiring last year for almost $600,000. Weather and population growth are among factors.

Technology allows planners to develop better models for water resources and make predictions under different scenarios than they could years ago, Tracy Streeter, Kansas Water Office director, said.

“We have the capability to look at that with a high degree of confidence and be able to make some good decisions,” he said.

Updated information is another reason to regularly take a fresh look at water plans, King said. Wichita’s plan hasn’t been revised since 1993, which King noted when he assumed his position two years ago.

“It was overdue,” he said.

Although water plans are set for 50 years into the future, King said those plans should be reviewed at least every five to 10 years.

Under the revised plan, the city will continue selling water to area communities and rural water districts, King said.

“We have contracts with them,” he said. “So far there has been no discussion of finding a solution at the expense of those customers. We treat them like our (Wichita residential) customers.”

Here’s a look at some specifics:

El Dorado Lake

After officials from the cities of Wichita and El Dorado initiated discussions more than two years ago, they resumed talks in recent months. Wichita is looking at three options for buying the lake’s water from El Dorado:

• Potable water – usable for drinking and other consumption – delivered by El Dorado straight to Wichita’s distribution center.

• Raw water delivered by El Dorado straight from the lake to Wichita’s treatment plant.

• Raw water delivered by El Dorado from the lake to Wichita’s Aquifer Storage and Recovery (ASR) project, northwest of Wichita and primarily in Harvey County.

Kurt Bookout, El Dorado’s public utilities director, has offered Wichita only the first option, delivering potable water. Wichita officials prefer to buy raw water.

“We don’t think it makes sense to build a line halfway across Butler and Sedgwick counties and not have anybody in that developing corridor be able to tap off of it,” Bookout said. “We’re looking at helping provide long-term water supply strategies for all the communities in this region.”

Bookout’s plan calls for selling the delivered potable water for $5 to $6 per thousand gallons – more than double the amount Wichita charges its wholesale customers.

El Dorado would pay for construction of the nearly 25-mile pipeline to Wichita’s pump station, as well as a new treatment plant that would be able to deliver up to 30 million gallons daily to Wichita.

Wichita uses an average of 65 million gallons per day, although that can reach more than 100 gallons on a hot summer day.

Bookout estimated the cost of building the plant and 48-inch pipeline would be $120 million to $150 million and would take two to three years.

A 38-mile pipeline would be needed to move raw water from the lake to the ASR storage facility, said Jacobs, project manager for the city’s water resource plan. Cost of the pipeline would be determined in part by how much the city would pay El Dorado for the raw water, he added.

The U.S. Corps of Army Engineers completed El Dorado Lake in 1981, but the city of El Dorado bought the storage rights. So discussion of any deal would be between El Dorado and Wichita and wouldn’t involve the federal government, Corps officials have said.

El Dorado’s offer is based on “normal water conditions,” which still exist at the lake, Bookout said.

But when the lake falls 5 feet below the conservation pool, lesser amounts of water could be sold, he said. He noted that if the area experienced a drought twice as severe as the 1950s drought, El Dorado could still sell at least 10 million gallons daily.

The uncertainty of the amount concerns Wichita officials. For that reason, King said, “We don’t want to enter into a long-term contract.”

Nonetheless, he added, “El Dorado is very probably one of our future water sources.”

So far, the two sides haven’t discussed raw water. Representatives of the two cities are expected to meet again sometime after the first week of August, Bookout said.

Cheney’s excess water

Considering earlier this year many of the reservoir’s boat docks were sitting on dry ground, it’s hard to imagine Cheney could have excess water.

Although there aren’t solid rainfall records for Cheney’s watershed area, Jacobs provided documentation that shows Wichita has seen above normal rainfall in six of the last 10 years. The last three years have been below normal.

It would also take a 38-mile pipeline to move the water to the city’s underground storage facility that recharges the Equus Beds. Cost of the pipeline hasn’t been set yet, Jacobs said.

Salty water

Salt exists naturally at various levels in this area’s underground water. When the salt content reaches a certain level, the water has to be treated more extensively.

Wichita’s plan would be to start pulling the high-salt-content water from wells and treat it through a reverse osmosis plant, a type of desalination facility, so it could be used for drinking.

The wells would be scattered throughout the area, but King said it would be important to cluster enough productive wells together to make it work financially.

“There’s still work to be done,” he said. “You also would have an issue of collection (of water) and getting it to the plant. We don’t know if it’s economically feasible enough to make it work.

“However, if we get 50 years into the future and there’s no water, we may have to find a way to make it feasible.”

Water for the plant also could come from an existing well field owned by Derby. The city would have to buy the water rights from Derby, which no longer uses the field because of the water’s high salt content. Derby is among the 11 entities that buy water wholesale from Wichita.

Cost of a reverse osmosis plant hasn’t been set. The city is considering a plant that initially would treat up to 15 million gallons, Jacobs said.

Hutchinson began operating a reverse osmosis plant in 2009 to filter minerals out of brackish water from its wells. The plant cost $16.5 million and averages processing 6.5 million gallons daily, although it has a 10 million-gallon capacity, said Don Koci, superintendent of the city’s water treatment systems.

Hutchinson disposes of the impurities by sending them about a mile underground to the Arbuckle aquifer, Koci said.

Treated sewer water

The city processes an average of 25 million gallons of sewer water daily through its treatment plant in the south part of town. The water goes into the Arkansas River and is not reused by Wichita.

Plans call for that to change.

“We need to use that treated sewer water, either for drinking, irrigation or industrial,” King said.

Using even treated sewer water for drinking may raise some eyebrows. Inside the water business, they call it effluent water.

Any city that’s downstream from a sewer water treatment plant that pulls water out of the river is reusing treated sewer water for drinking water, King noted.

“But to actually take it and recirculate it right back into your town for drinking water,” he added, “that’s very rare.”

Water tests on the treated sewer water will determine how much more treatment is necessary and how it would be used. It’s possible the sewer water could be used for irrigation or industrial and wouldn’t need any more filtering after it exits the treatment plant, King said.

Or the treated sewer water could continue to be dumped into the river, where sand would help further filter it, Jacobs said. Some of that water seeps underground, which can be retrieved through wells drilled along the riverbanks.

Wichita would have to obtain water rights to those wells from the state and would probably drill up to 20 wells, Jacobs said.

Depending on the quality of water after it is pulled from the wells, different treatment methods could be used. It’s unlikely that water would be run through the reverse osmosis plant, King said, because that would be the most expensive treatment.

“If we had to do that,” King added, “the economics would probably keep us from using the water.”

Build a new lake

Not much of a chance of that happening, officials at all levels say.

The Corps of Army Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation haven’t built a federally backed lake since the 1980s, officials from both agencies said. The bureau completed Cheney Reservoir in 1965.

“The likelihood of building a new lake is pretty remote just from a cost standpoint,” said Streeter, the head of the Kansas Water Office. “I don’t know if you could even get the federal government to support you today in building a new lake.”

It literally takes an act of Congress to get one authorized, and then Congress would have to fund it.

The Corps and Reclamation Bureau follow similar criteria in determining when to build a reservoir.

For starters, John Grothaus, chief of the planning section for the Corps’ Kansas City district, said a lake needs multiple purposes — it can’t be just a water resource. The predominant purpose has to be managing flood risk.

A large lake would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, Grothaus said. The federal government requires a local entity to put in 35 percent of the money.

“A local partner would have to surface and send a letter with a lot of political power behind it and a lot of commitment (to get authorization),” he said. “It doesn’t mean it can’t be done, but there are a lot of hurdles to jump over to get a lake built.”

The city could spend millions of dollars just to develop a preliminary design to send to the Corps, Jacobs said.

At one time, the Corps authorized the building of a number of additional lakes in Kansas, but construction never took place. A lake near Douglass was authorized in 1965, but the Corps officially removed that authorization in 2002.

Congress never set money aside for the project. The plans also didn’t meet federal requirements because 96 percent of the lake’s purpose was designed for water supply. The water was to be sent to several communities.

Milford Reservoir

City officials show no indication they want to resurrect a plan that Wichita considered more than 30 years ago to pipe water from Milford Reservoir near Junction City.

The plan was dropped but not before it prompted a state law – the Water Transfer Act of 1983 – that prohibits diverting or transporting more than 2,000 acre feet of water (or about 650 million gallons) beyond 35 miles from the water’s source. A committee of three state officials, including Streeter, could waive the restriction.

Civic and political leaders from the Milford area strongly objected to the idea last time.

“We would have the political problem again,” Jacobs said. “El Dorado can be done fairly easily.”

Kaw Lake, Okla.

There have been suggestions that the city draw water from Kaw Lake, about 90 miles southwest of Wichita in northern Oklahoma. But the Sooner State has a law that prohibits the state from exporting water.

“I’m not saying it can’t be done,” said Brian Vance, spokesman for the Oklahoma Water Resources Board, “but there would be some big legal hurdles.”

Texas challenged Oklahoma’s law and lost last month in a 9-0 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Equus Beds aquifer

This is about the city getting more water out of a source it’s already tapping.

The city has state water rights to pull 40,000 acre feet of water – 13billion gallons – annually from its wells in the Equus Beds. Until the amount was increased by 20 percent in June, the city pulled out an average of almost half that amount – 21,000 acre feet.

But with the change, the city officials expect to be taking the full 40,000 out annually at some point. A preliminary report by the U.S. Geological Survey shows rainfall naturally replenishes the Equus Beds at 29,000 acre feet per year.

The difference concerns Streeter. The aquifer has seen hard times before. It was severely depleted by heavy use — largely agricultural irrigation — that saw the water level in Wichita’s well field drop 40 feet from 1940 to 1993.

He said Wichita clearly has the water rights to draw more from the aquifer.

“And if I were them, I’d be doing the same thing,” the state water official said. “But what’s the resource going to look like? What’s the effect going to be? That’s important.”

King, the city’s public works and utilities director, agreed. The switch to pulling more out of the Equus Beds is temporary.

“As soon as the drought eases up,” he said, “we’ll go right back to where we were. We don’t want to pull more water out of there than we have to.”

King said the city is better off taking more water out of Cheney, because even during normal rainfall years, the reservoir has excess water that has to be spilled out. That also would be another reason the city would want to consider sending Cheney’s excess water to its storage facility.

As the efficiency of its aquifer recharge project (ASR) increases, city officials say that also could play into the Equus Beds providing more water because the city could increase its water rights beyond the 40,000 acre feet.

The ASR project was started in 2006 and has cost $244 million so far. It finally moved past a pilot stage and began operating in mid-April at a level that could pull 15 million gallons daily out of the Little Arkansas River, treat it to drinking-water quality and send it for storage into the Equus Beds.

The city is allowed to exceed its water rights by the amount it puts into the Equus Beds.

ASR can take water out of the river when it is at a certain level – usually after a rain. Assuming it could operate the projected average of 120 days per year, it could recharge the aquifer by as much as 5,500 acre feet of water annually.

That would mean the city could take 45,500 acre feet out each year. And if the ASR ever reaches its projected capacity of 30 million gallons per day, that amount would jump to 51,000 acre feet.

But state law says two conditions have to be met before the city could get credits for putting water in the aquifer, King said.

No credits are allowed if the Equus Beds drop to a certain level, and the water sent to the aquifer has to remain there for a certain length of time.

Right now, because of the drought and trying to relieve pressure on Cheney and the Equus Beds, the city is pulling water out of the river and putting it into the aquifer only briefly before pulling it back up and using it.

“We’re losing future credits,” King said, “so we have to live with the 40,000 acre feet. But every gallon we take out of the river is a gallon we don’t have to take out of the other two sources.”

The city has sent more than 80 million gallons since mid-April directly to the city’s distribution center.

Original ASR plans called for third and fourth phases, to draw up to 60 million gallons a day. But those have been pulled off the table for now so the city can re-examine assumptions that were made when the project was launched, King said.

“We’re not going to lock ourselves in to that plan,” he added. “The plan we’re preparing will drive what kind of options we’ll consider. We need to get more efficient at running the ASR.”

Some future uses of the project could include drilling additional wells into the Equus Beds to help push back the chloride plume that has been migrating into the aquifer, he said.

Reach Rick Plumlee at 316-268-6660 or rplumlee@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @rickplumlee.

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