Cheney Reservoir is almost full and forecasts call for a wet winter.
So how much should the city advocate for water conservation measures now? Wichita officials aren’t entirely on the same page about that.
Council member Janet Miller was clear during a council retreat earlier this week: Water conservation should be an all-the-time priority in Wichita, not just a last-ditch effort during a water shortage like the three-year drought that ended in August.
“I keep being reassured that conservation will be a part of it (the city’s search for a new long-term water supply),” Miller said, “but to me it’s almost like window dressing.
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“I know we won’t solve the problem with water conservation alone, but we keep talking about we have a plan we will employ when we get to a drought. Other communities across the country, that’s their first strategy, to reduce base usage. I see us doing the opposite and I keep being patted on the head whenever I bring up the subject. That’s not the best practice of the rest of the country.”
“No, we haven’t patted you on the head,” City Manager Robert Layton said, to laughter from the room. “On the shoulder.”
In February, city officials announced that Cheney Reservoir would run dry in 2015 if the drought continued. They launched conservation efforts, primarily structured around education and rebates to water users with energy efficient appliances.
A proposal for huge fines — up to $1,000 for chronic big water users — sparked a community outcry and a split between the council and administration. Instead, smaller financial penalties were built in to the city’s drought plan.
Layton referenced the community’s heated opposition to big fines for major water users.
“Candidly, the community push-back to doing anything meaningful on conservation after a three-year drought makes you wonder how much will this community be willing to do to get meaningful conservation,” the city manager said.
The city’s water supply has been replenished after a wet summer. The conservation pool at Cheney Reservoir, used by the city for water, is 99.37% full.
Through October, water consumption is down 18.3 percent compared with the end of October 2012. Alan King, the city’s public works director, said he wasn’t sure how much of the drop is due to weather-related cuts in lawn watering and how much is due to other conservation efforts.
A little more than 25 percent of the city’s appliance rebate program started last summer has been used, with $261,516.65 paid out to 2,095 people who bought water-efficient appliances. The council authorized $1 million for the rebate program, which ends Dec. 31.
Council member James Clendenin praised the city’s conservation education efforts last summer, but Miller said they weren’t enough.
“We did it for two seconds, and we’re not going to do it again unless we’re in a drought,” she said.
“We need to spend money on education year-round, on incentives year-round. I mean, $1 million? We’re talking about spending billions on infrastructure, so a million is nothing compared to the billions we’re going to spend.
“I think we are running from not wanting the public to be unhappy,” Miller concluded. “As elected leaders, we’re charged with making decisions some people aren’t going to like. They’re not going to like the cost of this increased infrastructure, either. We face a big policy question deciding whether we are going to pursue conservation in a serious way.”
Clendenin said water issues are central to the city’s economic development — and jobs — efforts.
“I think when we’re talking about conservation, commercial reuse, all that, we’re talking all about messaging again,” Clendenin said. “How do you make sure when you’re talking about water that this city isn’t looked at it a negative light? At one point, we were very concerned that Wichita doesn’t have any water. Don’t bring your company here. We’re out of water. So there’s a big economic development portion to this and we need to be aware of that.”
Other council members and Layton advocated a more regional approach to water, including state and federal partnerships, to develop a long-term water source and alleviate the drought concerns of last summer.
“Wichita is bearing the burden of protecting the Equus Beds in this area with our ASR (groundwater recharge project) as are our ratepayers,” council member Jeff Longwell said.
“We ought to have our water discussions more often with a larger group.”