If Wichita expects citizens to get serious about using less water, and is still serious itself about possible $1,000 fines or 500 percent rate hikes for water over-users later this summer, it shouldn’t be mixing its messages by letting public fountains flow. Keep them off for now, and let citizens see City Hall lead on conservation in every other way possible as well.
Actually, a proposed internal water conservation plan to be considered Tuesday by the Wichita City Council only calls for the continued shutoff of 12 decorative fountains (including the Hyatt Regency Wichita’s Waterwall), and for significantly reducing the use of five interactive fountains (such as in Old Town Square and Riverside Park) and the performances of WaterWalk’s Waltzing Waters. Such changes will save 3.8 million gallons of water annually, according to the city, because even when a fountain recycles water it ends up losing some to wind and evaporation.
Fountains are part of a city’s design signature, working with architecture, art and landscaping to define a local identity and convey a sense of community self-esteem. But if there was a time to follow Vice Mayor Pete Meitzner’s argument that “we have to have those fountains on” for appearances and quality of life, that would have been during the Wichita River Festival, which just ended Saturday.
With the festival over and the weather heating up, the priority should be conservation, not beautification.
To its credit, the city already uses gray water from the Herman Hill Water Center to water trees and has halted the summertime events in which firefighters spray down children. The other ideas on the proposed conservation plan sound prudent, too, including reducing irrigation on city-owned land (not including athletic fields) to place grass in a dormant state, raising lawn-mower height to increase root shade and reduce evaporation, starting a pilot project for waterless street sweeping, and testing an alternative schedule for maintenance of the city’s 17,000 fire hydrants.
City staff is still studying some other ideas that seem promising, including using pumping station cooling water for irrigation at Botanica, revising landscaping guidelines for medians and city rights of way, and moving from fescue to Bermuda on city-owned properties including golf courses and the Stryker Soccer Complex.
Of course, the changes are about money as well as messaging. Together, the measures already implemented and on Tuesday’s agenda could save 43.6 million gallons and $159,000 a year. Replacing the grass at the soccer complex with Bermuda next June, at an upfront cost of $232,000, could pay for itself in six years in less water and fewer mowings.
It’s a shame to see the city’s fountains idle and dry. But as City Council member Janet Miller said, the public has been asking what the city is going to do itself to respond to the drought concerns. It’s time for the city not only to tell citizens to conserve, but to show them how it’s done.