So the city of Wichita is backing off the idea of jacking up water rates this spring to deter usage, preferring to seek public input as it identifies the best remedy. Encouraging conservation is a must. But it will take far more than that – including some steely leadership and fast, forward-looking action – to guarantee that Wichita continues to have enough water to go around.
Projections are that Cheney Reservoir, the source of 60 percent of the city’s water, could dry up by August 2015 if the drought persists.
That sounds to the public like an emergency that demands immediate attention.
But since the city staff’s sobering Feb. 26 briefing of the Wichita City Council, talk has turned to educating residents about water-saving measures and collecting public input about how to proceed at district advisory board meetings and otherwise.
Those are good ideas as far as they go. But the city’s own projection is that a public relations campaign promoting conservation would extend the life of the city’s water supply by a measly three weeks – hardly enough to suffice as an answer. And as Sedgwick County found out a decade ago when it spent half-a-million dollars one year hoping to persuade more residents to recycle, advertising alone has its limits when it comes to changing behavior.
Granted, the other options outlined for the City Council all sounded pretty bad, especially after the multiple increases in water and sewer rates over the past few years.
The most punishing proposed hikes could mean bills 100 to 250 percent higher for some users, yet extend the life of the water supply by just seven to 21 months. The potential costs to the city of increasing the supply are daunting, too, such as $5 million on Equus Beds modifications or $200 million for a desalinization plant to treat salty groundwater. And who knows what the costs and hassles would be of getting water via pipeline from El Dorado Lake.
The aggressive customer pricing also would carry some risks beyond ratepayer anger, with many residents digging wells so they could avoid the rates and keep on watering at will.
But leaders have yet to debate mandatory watering restrictions, like those Wichitans experienced short term in the early ’90s and Augusta and Mulvane imposed more recently.
And at some point homeowners’ associations and developers will need to recognize that the lush, green fescue lawn of Wichitans’ dreams may no longer be compatible with the local climate, and embrace landscaping that is still attractive but less reliant on watering.
In any case, the urgency on water should not be allowed to dissipate further. Procrastination is not a winning strategy on this issue, unless keeping citizens happy now matters more than keeping the water flowing long term.