City staff continues to explore role of aquifer project

07/07/2014 11:30 AM

08/06/2014 11:20 AM

Public works officials are weighing how to best utilize the city’s $244 million aquifer storage and recovery project – if the City Council gives it a prominent role in Wichita’s water future.

Public works director Alan King wouldn’t rule out more staffing or more money if the groundwater project – currently half done – is enhanced or completed at the direction of the council. However, King and Ben Nelson, who manages strategic services for the public works department, said the project and the city’s equus beds well field are adequately staffed to handle current water production.

“It’s possible we could need to go to the council for a budget request,” King said. “It depends entirely on the role that ASR is going to play going forward.”

City staff is preparing a “white paper” on options for a new city water source, to be publicly unveiled in May. Part of those recommendations will include the future role of the groundwater project, some 13 years in the development before a second phase went on line last year as a three-year drought wound down.

The two future water options getting the hardest look right now include enhancing the groundwater project with 30 new wells to increase water production capabilities and buying treated water from El Dorado Reservoir. Another involves completing the two remaining phases in the recharge and recovery project, at an estimated cost of at least $300 million.

Putting more money into the groundwater project drew some political fire last week from the council, but City Manager Robert Layton told The Eagle last week the city wouldn’t have had enough water to survive last summer’s drought without it.

Council members could also combine options, and several are discussing a plan that would include water from Cheney Reservoir, water from an enhanced groundwater project and new water from El Dorado Reservoir.

Currently, the well field has 12 staffers who double as ASR workers when there’s water to be withdrawn in the Little Arkansas River, Nelson said. Responding to public criticism that the well field is understaffed and underutilized for maximum water production, King said that crew worked round-the-clock last year as river water was treated and injected into the aquifer.

“We had some overtime,” King said. “And we certainly had some re-purposing of employees. But we handled the water that was there.”

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 the multi-million-dollar price tag with 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.

City officials believe that a completed ASR project would produce about 11,000 acre-feet of water a year, or 3.5 billion gallons – the same amount the city would buy in a $250 million plan to buy water and build a pipeline to El Dorado Reservoir.

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