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City: Wichita would not have survived drought without aquifer project

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Saturday, April 12, 2014, at 5 p.m.
  • Updated Monday, June 30, 2014, at 9:41 a.m.


Wichita wouldn’t have survived last summer’s drought without a controversial $244 million groundwater recharge project, city staff says.

But, some City Council members are balking at the $300 million price tag to finish the project.

For more than a decade, the city has been taking water from the Little Arkansas River, treating it and putting it into the Equus Beds, a sprawling underground water formation northwest of the city. The purpose is to store enough water to get the city through another drought while avoiding building a new reservoir.

Finishing the aquifer storage and recharge project, ASR for short, would bring the total price tag for the water project to well over a half-billion dollars. Meanwhile, new ways to bring water to Wichita have developed in the past decade, and they might be cheaper than finishing ASR, City Manager Robert Layton and public works officials said last week.

“We would have had a difficult time making it through the drought last year without ASR,” Layton said. “ASR is a vital part of our plans and strategies. ASR hasn’t failed. It’s not wasted money. We’re getting significant results from ASR.”

Significant enough that a completed four-phase ASR project would meet Wichita’s water needs through 2060?

“We believe it would,” Layton said. “But there may be more cost-effective options now.”

Facts and figures

The city now gets 60 percent of its water from Cheney Reservoir and 40 percent from the Equus Beds. It needs another source of water to meet demand for the next 50 years.

A few facts and figures: Two of the four phases of the ASR project are nearly complete, generating 5,800 acre-feet or 1.8 billion gallons of water a year for the city. That’s about 9 percent of the water the city uses in an average year. But the city and farmers are pumping more water than that out of the aquifer each year, city officials say, depleting it significantly.

ASR – with all four phases completed – was designed to meet the city’s water needs during a once-every-50-years drought, similar to the 1950s drought.

If the project is completed, city officials estimate it would generate 11,000 acre feet or 3.5 billion gallons a year through 2060 – exactly the amount officials say the city would receive if it purchased treated water from El Dorado Lake, estimated to cost about $250 million.

Construction of the first ASR phase – essentially a test – was completed in 2006. The second phase began in 2009 and was interrupted by the city in 2010 for the reasons the project is under the City Hall microscope today – to see if there were better and cheaper ways to get more water.

It was cleared for restart a few months later. The second phase, withdrawing water from the Little Arkansas River for storage in the aquifer, was completed last year but couldn’t operate until late in the year due to the drought. The city is allowed by the state to take water from the Little Arkansas only when the river level is up.

Currently, the project is entirely reliant on pulling water from the river, but if phase 3 is undertaken the city would drill wells along the riverbank, capturing significantly more water for the city.

“Having the project stopped where it is, we’re very much more sensitive to the days that water is in the river. The ASR project was never intended to be that sensitive to actual days of water in the river,” said Alan King, the city’s public works director.

“We should have had the bank storage wells built, so that even when there’s no water in the river we could still be pulling water out.”

What constitutes the final two phases of the ASR project? Drilling the bank storage wells, drilling some additional recharge wells, improving the pipeline system in the well field, additional treatment capacity and a parallel transmission line from the well field to Wichita are the big ticket items, King said. The result would be a 150 percent increase – from 40 million gallons a day to 100 million gallons a day – in the water from the project.

Tracy Streeter, director of the Kansas Water Office, said the city’s work on ASR has been beneficial to one of the state’s major groundwater supplies, the Equus Beds.

“Certainly, the state has a major interest in the Equus Beds and making it is sustainable,” he said. “On a bigger scale, we believe that anything that helps with sustaining the Equus Beds is a good investment.

“That’s been our position on the ASR – that it’s cutting edge technology to take high-flow water and put it in one of the limited storage opportunities we have … the third reservoir, so to speak, in south-central Kansas.”

In addition to storing more water, the ASR was designed to protect Wichita’s water wells from contamination. Part of the aquifer is contaminated with saltwater left over from decades of oil drilling, largely in western Harvey County. That saltwater is slowing creeping toward Wichita’s wells. Recharging the aquifer will raise the water level underground and create a barrier to hold back the contamination.

“We’d certainly like to see it realize its full potential under the design we have now, and I don’t know they’re there yet,” he said. “In the context of looking at the overall health of the Equus Beds, we’d like to see it continue. We’d like to see ASR do what it was designed to do.”

Evolving technology

Layton stopped the project in 2010, saying he was concerned about water rate hikes.

He said the stoppage “was right.”

“Technologies change over time,” he said. “Reverse osmosis, for example, has changed a lot since this project began in 1993.

“I hate getting all cliche, but this debate really is about getting the best value for the taxpayer and ratepayer dollar going forward. That’s why going ahead with phase 3 may not be the best thing to do.”

Council member Janet Miller said Layton’s on the right track.

“With any major investment like this one, over a period of decades I think it’s reasonable and prudent to look at what other technologies have arisen, and how those would be priced,” she said. “You don’t want to blindly continue down a path. You always want to evaluate and make course corrections as appropriate.

“I think ASR has been an important part of providing us additional water that we need, and I think it’s going to continue to play that role.”

Layton said the ASR project was initially controversial in Wichita for “its cost and the rate impact.”

“It should be less controversial today than before the drought started,” the city manager said. “Why did we spend money for this water source? We just had three years that showed us why.”

Layton downplayed public concerns that the city is paying to create more irrigation water for farmers who also use the aquifer.

“We do know what water in the aquifer is ours. We have senior water rights and we know what we can pull out,” he said.

“We want to work with the farmers, and that’s why another water source helps us and the whole region.”

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

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