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Water workshop: City questions wisdom of investing more in aquifer project

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Tuesday, April 8, 2014, at 7:56 p.m.
  • Updated Monday, June 30, 2014, at 9:41 a.m.

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Wichita officials homed in on two options Tuesday for the city’s future water supply while acknowledging that one, the $240 million aquifer recharge project, has come up short so far.

The city now gets its water from Cheney Reservoir and wells in the Equus Beds aquifer. It needs an additional source to continue to grow and to provide water during severe drought.

City Manager Robert Layton tentatively advanced two options during a City Council workshop: buying treated water from El Dorado Reservoir and expanding the city’s aquifer recharge and storage recovery project, or ASR.

That project, which takes river water and stores it in the aquifer for later use, drew some fire from council members Tuesday. Public works director Alan King reported that it is generating only half the water city officials had projected – 5,800 acre-feet or 1.8 billion gallons of water a year, instead of the projected 11,000 acre-feet or 3.5 billion gallons a year. An acre-foot is enough water to provide four Wichita households with water for a year.

If the existing aquifer project were expanded, 30 new wells would be drilled to match water supply with capability of the treatment plant, the 30 million gallons per day. That plan is projected to yield 8,000 acre-feet of water, or 2.6 billion gallons, protecting the city through 2024. Severe water conservation by the public would be needed to extend the city’s drought protection through 2060, “the maximum we think is even possible,” King said.

The project’s price tag is $198 million, plus $1.6 million in annual operating costs, temporarily raising water rates 2 percent with a $198 million capital investment by the city.

Council member Jeff Longwell, a longtime opponent of the aquifer recharge project, said it was originally sold to Wichitans as the city’s 50-year water supply.

“It’s disappointing to hear that it is producing about half of what it was previously calculated to produce,” he said.

Vice Mayor Pete Meitzner agreed.

“I’m still digesting, but it does seem that more money into the next phases of ASR may not be the best choice,” he said.

The city of El Dorado has offered to deliver treated water to the 21st and Webb booster station. Wichita would pay El Dorado $234 million for start-up capital costs to cover a treatment plant and the pipeline.

In exchange, Wichita would receive the treated water for free for a specified time. If the city didn’t pick up the start-up costs, it would pay $5 per 1,000 gallons. This plan would require minimal water conservation by the public – less than the water conserved by the city’s appliance rebate program last year.

It would cost $16 million to improve Wichita infrastructure to accept the water, plus $600,000 annual operating costs, raising water rates 0.7 percent with a $250 million capital investment by the city.

King outlined three other key options that his staff has selected:

• Riverbank storage wells. A series of wells would be installed to capture water from the Arkansas River downstream of the city’s sewage treatment plant. The plan would yield 30,000 acre-feet a year, or roughly 9.8 billion gallons, of water, three-fourths of the city’s entire Equus Beds groundwater rights, protecting the city against drought through 2077. Price tag is $418 million, plus $17 million annually, primarily in operating electricity, temporarily raising water rates by 45 percent with a $250 million capital investment by the city.

Council member James Clendenin continued his advocacy for water reuse options like this one, urging staff to examine how other cities and states have successfully implemented such projects.

• Raw water from El Dorado Lake. A pipeline would be run from the lake to transport raw water to the surface water treatment plant at the Equus Beds project. The water would be stored in the aquifer for later use. The plan would yield 14,000 acre-feet of water, or 4.5 billion gallons, protecting the city against drought through 2036. It would require a “very doable” public commitment to water conservation – again, less than the water saved by the city’s appliance rebate program – to extend the drought protection through 2060. Price tag is $367 million, with $4.2 million in annual operating costs, raising water rates 22 percent with a $250 million capital investment by the city.

• The “purple pipe” system. A distribution system would serve 18 industrial and 13 high-irrigation customers with nonpotable water – treated but unsuitable for drinking. The plan would yield 2,500 acre-feet of water, or 815 million gallons, but offers no protection to the city against drought. It would require draconian conservation measures, including the gradual elimination of outdoor watering. Price tag is $120 million, with $1.7 million in annual operating costs, raising water rates 2.1 percent with a $120 million capital investment by the city.

Chamber officials appeared at the workshop to urge the most cost-effective water supply possible. Their task force report urged the city to plan for a 50-year drought as the worst case scenario, since plans for a 100-year drought appear too expensive.

Council members can choose one of the options, combine the options or send the issue back to city staff members for more study.

Related link: City of Wichita’s Water Conservation and Supply report (PDF)

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

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