‘Perfect storm’ leads Wichita officials to back off water plan for $1,000 fine, 500 percent rate increase

06/03/2013 12:50 PM

08/06/2014 2:11 AM

Snowbirds and owners of fescue lawns or backyard swimming pools in Wichita can take a breath.

City officials for now have decided to turn away from a punitive approach to cutting water use, instead emphasizing friendlier ways to reduce the amount of water drawn out of depleted Cheney Reservoir.

They have pulled their recommendation that the City Council on Tuesday choose either a $1,000 fine or 500 percent rate increase for the highest water users, after last week’s “perfect storm” that significantly increased Cheney’s water level by billions of gallons.

But city officials caution the drought isn’t over.

So they’ll still ask the council to approve other measures, including drawing more water from the Equus Beds aquifer – the city’s other water source – than from Cheney and using $1 million for a rebate program to encourage use of such things as rain barrels and high-efficiency appliances.

The two punitive billing options, plus a third alternative that would allow the council to establish conservation and enforcement actions based on Cheney’s level, are expected to be presented to the council in about 30 days.

“We don’t want to be shortsighted and back off a conservation approach and then be caught short again,” Wichita City Manager Robert Layton said Monday.

So what prompted the sudden change in plans on the eve of the council’s meeting?

Last Thursday’s storm that dumped more than 4 billion gallons of water in Cheney increased the reservoir’s conservation pool – where the city draws its water – to 72 percent of capacity over the weekend from 64 percent before the storm, Ben Nelson, the strategic service manager for public works and utilities, said Monday.

A forecast that calls for more rain in the next week and rainfall this summer was also part of the decision.

“Because we saw significant drainage at Cheney and the water levels rising so much through this weekend,” Nelson said, “we are recommending those two options be tabled for right now.

“We want to make sure we are through the end of the June rain season before we consider them again. It’s important to remember the drought isn’t over. It has eased quite a bit. But we’re still urging our customers to minimize water usage.”

As the result of a drought that began in 2011 and saw Cheney’s conservation pool drop to 58 percent of capacity in February, the city developed the two punitive options to encourage less water usage after several months of public input.

Both proposals were based on allowing customers to use 310 percent over their average winter water usage (December through March) in the summer without being penalized.

For the purpose of only figuring the 310 percent, average monthly winter use was set at a minimum of 6,000 gallons. That would allow a resident to use more than 18,000 gallons a month in the summer without being penalized, which would be enough for normal use and still keep a fescue lawn green and flourishing, city officials said.

“We thought that was generous,” said Alan King, director of public works and utilities

Still, that set off concerns for some folks, such as those who spend their winters elsewhere and return to Wichita in the spring, or those concerned about keeping their fescue lawns green and pools filled.

“There’s no doubt the mayor and council have heard from a lot of residents regarding the proposal and questions regarding how it would be implemented and questions of equity,” Layton said.

4.2 billion gallons

Last week’s rain bought city officials some time and they plan to use it to develop the third option over the next month.

A skeleton outline of that plan envisions one being more responsive to changes in the city’s water supply. Different thresholds at Cheney would trigger different responses, such as a public notice to be more conservative or enforcement actions, Layton said.

Taking enforcement too far can be a problem, though.

“If you simply ban irrigation or require it to be done at certain times, then we’re going to have to have a significant enforcement staff,” Layton said. “That could be really difficult. What it does is create an expectation that would be difficult to achieve.

“That’s why we were trying to do it on the billing end.”

But to accomplish that, he acknowledged, a lot more information has to be shared with the public about what it means to hit the highest tier of water usage, what can be done to avoid it, what can be done to keep a lawn alive while still reducing water usage.

While City Hall has been hit by complaints from residents about the initial two options, Layton said, “It’s been promising to know that people understand the importance of conservation and that we need to do something different.”

Thursday’s storm increased Cheney by 13,000 acre feet of water – or more than 4.2 billion gallons. To put that in perspective, the city uses about 18 billion gallons during a year with normal precipitation. The drought has driven the yearly average the last two years to 22 billion.

As of Friday, the city was still planning to ask the council to approve one of the two punitive options. But by Saturday, Cheney’s percent of capacity jumped eight points. An above average precipitation earlier in the year that saturated the ground and filled many ponds around Cheney helped set up the change of plans, Nelson said.

“And then Thursday, parts of the area that fills Cheney got as much as 5 inches of rain,” he said. “We had a lot of water rushing into Cheney. It really made the Thursday storm kind of the perfect storm.”

Nelson said the city hasn’t set a specific capacity percentage for Cheney.

“Obviously, if it’s at 100 percent, that makes everyone more comfortable,” he said. “Seventy-two percent is comfortable enough that we’re tabling the water reductions for Tuesday.”

Cheney’s conservation pool hasn’t been at 100 percent since February 2011.

$100 rebates

The council will be asked to consider both short- and long-term drought planning.

City officials want to flip-flop the amount of water taken from Cheney and the Equus Beds, with Cheney dropping to 35-40 percent from 60-65 percent.

As part of that plan, the council will be asked to approve $5 million so deeper wells can be drilled in the Equus Beds. If an increased amount of water is pulled from the aquifer, the shallower wells will be depleted in about two years, King said.

“It’ll take about two years to drill the deeper wells,” he said. “You don’t want to wait until you need them.”

The council will also be asked to approve money for rebates for those who buy high-efficiency appliances, rain barrels, low-flow fixtures and smart sensors on irrigation systems. The rain barrels would get a $75 rebate and everything else would be $100, Nelson said.

In addition, a request will be made for $1.4 million to design a plan to allow the water treatment plant to handle only groundwater from the Equus Beds. That may involve chemical or equipment changes at the plant.

Right now, the plant handles both the groundwater and Cheney’s surface water with one process.

Having the option to handle only Equus Beds water would be helpful if Cheney can no longer be used or needs to be shut down temporarily for repairs.

“It’s a drought strategy but a longer-term one,” Nelson said.

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