Wichita water and sewer customers could see a nearly 9 percent rate increase on their monthly bills later this summer, an 8 percent hike next year and smaller jumps in years to come.
For average residential customers, that translates to $2.91 more per month this year and $4.19 more per month next year over current rates.
Meanwhile, the city is exploring ideas to find cheaper sources of water long-term, like buying water from El Dorado Reservoir and having big industrial companies use treated wastewater for manufacturing and irrigation.
The proposed rate hikes come from a report released Wednesday by HDR Engineering Inc., which the city hired earlier this year after learning its water utility was headed toward financial failure.
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A major part of the problem is that the city isn't selling enough water to pay for the $550 million Equus Beds Aquifer recharge project meant to ensure a long-term water supply.
In addition to rate hikes, HDR proposes slowing down the city's recharge project to put off about $35.8 million in expenses over the next several years.
If the city doesn't expand its water supply and find a way to pay for it the area could face water shortages by 2040, or much sooner if a severe drought occurs.
And if the city drops the aquifer recharge project, it runs the risk of having one of its main sources of water contaminated.
A salty plume of groundwater caused by oil exploration is slowly moving toward the Equus Beds Aquifer that the city relies on for more than a quarter of its water.
Putting river water into the aquifer to raise the groundwater levels around the city's wells is supposed to keep the saltwater from reaching the water wells.
While a steep rate increase seems inevitable this year, a lot could change before additional hikes start.
City Manager Robert Layton said he'll recommend that City Council members approve the increases on June 15 on the condition that the city conduct more thorough rate analysis.
Layton said that could lead to a new rate structure that charges heavy water users more and encourages conservation.
It could be months before any new rate structures emerge, but they will have to avoid pitfalls of the past.
Though the years, the city has tried encouraging conservation through water rates and public education.
But the city didn't properly account for the declines in water use for the past three years that stem from a combination of exceptionally rainy weather, the recession and consumer conservation.
A new rate structure "addresses what we keep hearing from the public," Layton said. "And that is: 'I conserve water and then the city's projections go south and therefore I'm being penalized for conserving.' "
Among other possible changes outlined include:
* Rehabilitating and expanding water wells along the Arkansas River near Riverside Park.
* Skimming water off the Arkansas River after heavy rain and treating it with reverse osmosis.
* Reducing water pressure to cut down on pipe breaks, leaks and the amount of water wasted when people leave faucets running.
Even more drastic changes could be on the horizon.
El Dorado connection
Mayor Carl Brewer said that he's withholding judgment on the rate increases and other proposals for the moment.
He said only: "I want to do everything in our power to keep our water rates down."
But he's confident in the Wichita area's long-range supply.
He and Layton plan to meet with El Dorado City Manager Herb Llewellyn and Mayor Tom McKibban within a month to talk about possibly tapping into El Dorado Reservoir about 30 miles northeast.
That idea was explored in 2000 but was never acted on.
Llewellyn said the reservoir supplies about 75 percent of Butler County with water and is "very underutilized."
"There is lots and lots of water just flowing to the Gulf of Mexico," he said.
In 2000, Professional Engineering Consultants examined the possibility of El Dorado treating and piping water to Wichita.
The study showed a start-up cost of $32 million to pump 10 million gallons a day.
Llewellyn said El Dorado already has plans for a pipeline and water tower to distribute water to parts of western Butler County and that it could be expanded to serve Wichita.
But both Wichita and El Dorado officials say the idea is very preliminary, and they haven't yet had any serious discussions.
Brewer said he is interested in exploring it.
"At the end of the day, it's not about how much the city of Wichita is selling or how much El Dorado sells," he said. "It's about the future, 50 years from now. Do we have enough water to be able to meet the needs of Kansans and people within this region?"