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City manager: Recovery water plan may be cheapest

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Tuesday, May 13, 2014, at 7:09 p.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, May 14, 2014, at 4:48 p.m.

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Wichita’s groundwater storage and recovery project, discarded by some City Council members a couple of months ago, may now be the cheapest long-term water source for the city’s future.

But not without a creative plan to adapt it to Wichita’s growing water needs, city officials said.

City Manager Robert Layton and public works officials rolled out four options for the city’s long-term water supply Tuesday as city staff members wrapped up a series of reports on community priorities.

Three of the options involved buying treated water from the city of El Dorado and El Dorado Reservoir in varying amounts.

It was the fourth option, however, that caught the attention of council members: expanding the city’s Aquifer Storage and Recovery Program northwest of Wichita.

The program draws water from the Little Arkansas River to recharge the Equus Beds Aquifer, which is also used by agricultural interests. Earlier this year, several council members criticized the recovery program as underperforming, voicing doubts that it would be a viable single long-term water source for the city.

Public works director Alan King reported in April that the recovery program 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.

Layton said the solution is a creative plan to put more water in the aquifer by drilling more wells, withdrawing more from the river during “high tide” and storing as much as possible in a proposed 80-acre reservoir at the site. Also included in the plan is a new pipeline from the storage and recovery program to the city’s downtown water facilities.

The city’s recovery program plant can handle only 30 million gallons a day, but if the reservoir were available, excess water that is now being lost could be stored and processed later when the river is down, said Ben Nelson, the city’s strategic services director for public works.

City officials estimate the expanded storage and recovery program would generate the same amount of water as the El Dorado plan – 11,000 acre-feet, or 3.5 billion gallons, a year.

The recovery program work with the reservoir carries the same start-up costs – $250 million – as plans to buy water from El Dorado.

At $376.4 million, it’s the cheapest of the four options when costs are spread out to 2060. That’s compared with the $1.35 billion cost of taking 30 million gallons a day from El Dorado Reservoir by building a treatment plant there and buying $5 million in water each year from the city.

“It’s a very promising option, very creative, one that uses ASR differently than it was designed,” Layton said.

It’s the most promising for Wichita water ratepayers as well, with a projected 1.3 percent one-time rate increase for the project compared with an 11.6 percent estimated increase if the city opts for the 30 million-gallon El Dorado plan.

The storage and recover project has one big benefit that any deal with El Dorado does not: rate certainty. Layton said he would attempt to negotiate some rate certainty into any deal with El Dorado, but council members kept going back to retaining the final word over the city’s water system.

“I like having control over our own fate,” council member Janet Miller said.

And even council member Jeff Longwell – who began the session by championing a deal to buy untreated water from El Dorado for the storage and recovery program – had signed on by the end. Although the city would buy several years’ worth of water up front from El Dorado, as part of the capital campaign to build the treatment and transportation infrastructure to the city, eventually the city would begin paying more for El Dorado water.

Another water option that has been discussed this spring, converting sewer water to drinking water, was discarded by staff members as too expensive.

The council also heard cost estimates for other projects:

• Passenger rail: Extending the Heartland Flyer from Oklahoma City to Newton through Wichita will cost between $87.5 million and $136.5 million, none of that city expense. Funding would come from the state and federal governments.

However, the plan would include annual operating subsidies from the cities along the line – perhaps as great as $4.4 million a year, Layton said.

• Affordable housing: The city has significant substandard housing issues. Costs to deal with the housing issue vary widely, from $400,000 to expand the city’s Section 8 housing program, which generally helps pay rent for low-income families, to $1.8 million to expand the city’s home repair program to millions more for a fund to buy and build on substandard housing sites.

•  Pavement preservation: The city is holding the line on deteriorating pavement with $8 million in new techniques to repair and restore city streets. For as little as $2 million more, “we can begin making some headway,” Layton said.

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

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