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Aquifer project’s role uncertain in Wichita’s long-term water plans

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014, at 7:41 p.m.
  • Updated Thursday, April 17, 2014, at 9:08 a.m.

Wichita’s $240 million aquifer storage and recovery program – promoted to taxpayers in the early 1990s as a way to supply the city with water for 50 years – could soon be relegated to serving as a bit player in the city’s long-term water future.

The Equus Beds groundwater aquifer, north and west of the city, is being drained by the city of Wichita and other municipal and agricultural users faster than the recharge project, dubbed ASR by city officials, would be able to replenish it. So City Council members are considering where the costly project fits into the long-term water supply it was supposed to provide.

The recharge project takes water out of the Little Arkansas River, treats it to remove farm chemicals and other pollutants, and stores it in the aquifer for later use. The project is only partially finished.

“We’re challenging every long-held assumption about water, mostly that we’re headed down a single course – the full-blown ASR,” said City Manager Robert Layton. “We need to figure out whether pulling water out of the river will give us everything we need, and we need to look at the cost of other water options.”

One question is whether to finish the aquifer project – phases 3 and 4, which some council members say could cost $300 million – potentially driving the total tab to over a half-billion dollars.

Two options have far more traction at City Hall: reusing water from the sewage treatment plant and buying raw water from El Dorado Lake.

“I flatly don’t think we can fill the aquifer up fast enough as it is,” council member Jeff Longwell said. “Number one, there’s so much ag use out of it that I’m not sure you can ever keep it filled up. We’re limited in how much we can refill from the river – and the drought really limited us last year – and that’s your refueling point. Going forward would mean relying on some extremely wet years and capturing a whole bunch of water.”

“I just don’t think the ASR is doing everything people thought it would 20 years ago,” council member Jeff Blubaugh said. “It was an excellent supplementary source of water for us last summer in a crisis, but I think the future for us is clearly the 30 million gallons of water we’re sending down the river every day anyway.”

The ASR project has been plagued by problems, city officials said, including equipment failures and a significant drought that idled the project because of low water levels in the Little Arkansas River.

The original design called for pulling river water up to 120 days a year, assuming average rainfall, said Ben Nelson, the city’s strategic services manager for public works. So far, the system has been able to capture water for far smaller periods of time, although it operated for 52 days last year after rains broke the three-year drought.

When the recharge project resumed in April 2013, it had capacity to pull 15 million gallons a day out of the Little Arkansas River, treat it and put it back in the aquifer.

The city uses about 65 million gallons of water a day, although that can reach more than 100 million gallons a day in hot weather.

The city will hold workshops March 25 and in late April to begin sorting through options for a long-term water supply.

What’s clear so far is that the existing Cheney Reservoir will be a big part of those options – though city officials said a year ago that it was in danger of running out of water if the drought continued.

After rains last summer, the reservoir’s conservation pool, from which Wichita draws its water supply, is now completely full. It was 58 percent full this time last year.

What’s less clear is the role the aquifer project will play in those options.

“I think the ASR phase 1 and 2 are a permanent fixture for us,” council member James Clendenin said, “if for no other reason than to supplement our water supply while Cheney is down.

“But if it’s true that we can’t fully recharge the water that’s being drawn out of the aquifer, then we’re going to have to take a look at whether this is cost-effective – or whether we’ve already gone all in and we’re forced to finish it out.”

Longwell says it could be time for the city to move on from the aquifer project.

“I like the fact that we don’t lose water to evaporation, like Cheney,” he said. “But personally, I would have rather seen us bring water over from El Dorado and pipe it into the aquifer every day rather than capture water for 30 days, maybe, when the river is high enough.

“My real heartburn is for us to finish what it would require to get that aquifer done, that could be $300 million over the $240 million we’re already wondering about. Running a pipe from El Dorado is a whole lot cheaper than that, especially when Wichita ratepayers are carrying these costs themselves for an entire region.”

Layton said he’s not ready to propose mothballing the aquifer project.

“We’re going to take feedback from the constituents, roll that into the mix,” he said. “That doesn’t mean that we’re going to put it on hold or not use it to any more capacity yet. Perhaps there are ways to use some excess capacity in the ASR and make some cost-effective modifications that doesn’t commit us to a next phase of the project, but could help us with other solutions, like El Dorado water or a re-use plan.”

City officials estimate that the cheapest solution – around $150 million – is to re-use and re-treat about 30 million gallons of water a day from the sewage treatment plant. It could cost between $120 million to $150 million to build a plant and pipe the El Dorado Lake water here, plus the ongoing costs of buying water.

The El Dorado water talks have cooled over the startup costs for the pipeline and an impasse over the type of water to fill it: El Dorado wants to sell tap water to the city for $5 to $6 per thousand gallons – more than double the amount Wichita charges its regional clients.

The city has no interest in putting treated tap water into the aquifer, instead insisting on raw water for a third to half of El Dorado’s asking price.

“Whatever we do is not going to be cheap. But we have to do something,” Clendenin said.

Reach Bill Wilson at 316-268-6290 or bwilson@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @bwilsoneagle.

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