May 7, 2014

Cheney Reservoir remains full despite dry start to 2014

It’s hot – record-setting hot. And it’s dry. But there’s plenty of water for Wichita in Cheney Reservoir.

It’s hot – record-setting hot. And it’s dry. But there’s plenty of water for Wichita in Cheney Reservoir.

For now.

City public works officials say they’re still reaping the benefits of wet months last year that ended a two-year drought and replenished Wichita’s primary water source.

The city is just now exhausting its extra supply of flood control water from Cheney dating back to rains in late summer and early fall last year. The Cheney conservation pool, which yields about 60 percent of the city’s water supply, remains full even though the first four months of 2014 have been the second driest locally.

Don’t expect any water restrictions soon, said Ben Nelson, the city’s strategic services manager for public works.

“We don’t know the future, and the dry weather is certainly cause for concern ... But we’re in a better place on two fronts – the water in Cheney, and if and when the next drought comes, we’ve got a drought response plan,” Nelson said.

“I’m always nervous about dry weather, but I’ve seen us get educated in the past year and become much more responsive based on the conditions at the time,” council member Jeff Longwell said.

Cheney Reservoir offers two supplies of water for Wichita: the conservation pool, where the city holds its municipal water rights, and the flood control pool, a little capacity on top to hold extra water. Last year, the conservation pool dwindled to about 35 percent.

“We’re pulling off the latter right now, rather than the municipal water supply,” Nelson said. “We’ve been burning through that, to the point that even with the hotter temperatures and drier weather, we’re able to stay at 100 percent in the conservation pool.”

Sometime this week, Wichita’s flood control excess water will be used up, and the city will start drawing down the conservation pool. So, city officials wouldn’t mind some rain this week.

“Yeah, it’s a great idea for us to start getting rain,” Nelson said. “The point is that the drought was a much more near-term concern last year. There’s no contemplation of water restrictions at this time.”

In an effort to be nimble in managing the city’s water, the City Council has given City Manager Robert Layton much of the authority to change how much water the city draws from Cheney and its other source, the Equus Beds well field northwest of the city.

Layton can change the normal mixture of water withdrawal – 60 percent from Cheney, 40 percent from the equus beds – and then update the council on what he has done.

“It’s essential that we not be the normal bureaucratic, drawn-out government in instances like these,” Longwell said. “We need to be very reactive to the weather conditions we’re dealt.

“If the heavens open and a large quantity of water comes down, it’s a shame for us not to pull from the flood control pool at Cheney instead of watch it go downstream. We should go 80 percent Cheney in those instances.”

The city’s four-stage drought response plan would be triggered if the conservation pool levels at Cheney do drop. It contains some hefty fines – up to $500 for repeat violators – but stops short of the controversial $1,000 fine for overusers proposed last year by city staff members.

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