Though the record 21 inches of snow that fell on Wichita in February were much appreciated by farmers and gardeners, they were no match for the state’s extreme drought and no remedy for the city’s looming water problem. All Wichitans could be affected by the coming countermeasures, which may mean paying more and using less.
It was sobering to learn last week that Cheney Reservoir – the source of 60 percent of the city’s water – is on course to dry up by August 2015 if the drought persists. And though some of the options presented to the Wichita City Council seem drastic, their benefits would be discouragingly short-lived.
Sharply raising rates to try to cut outdoor water use by at least 50 percent would extend the city’s water supply by only seven months – while some customers saw their bills rise more than 100 percent. Pushing rates even higher to try to end lawn watering, pool filling and other outdoor usage – 250 percent higher for big users – would extend the water supply by only 21 months.
Even spending $5 million on Equus Beds modifications to enable more pumping would add just 22 months to the city’s water supply, while scuttling plans to use that money to start replacing and repairing the city’s water and sewer lines.
Other potential steps long term include getting water via pipeline from El Dorado Lake and building a $200 million desalinization plant to process salty groundwater.
One problem for the City Council is that taxpayers are fed up with the city’s mixed messaging and unrelenting rate hikes regarding water over the past few years. If the water supply is to be replenished, public trust must be rebuilt.
Plus, steep rate hikes risk driving companies out of business and motivating property owners to dig private wells, further challenging the water utility’s finances.
There’s a worthy debate still to be had over the merits of mandatory watering restrictions, like those used by Wichita during its early ’90s water crisis and by Augusta and Mulvane more recently. In any case, it seems a no-brainer to encourage conservation via a public awareness campaign.
Of course, Wichitans should not wait for City Hall to act before they reassess their own water usage and landscaping. Because we are all in this boat together, watching the water level decline around us, we all need to be part of ensuring that Wichita has water far into what looks like an arid future.