How quickly Wichita’s water problem changed from having too little to having way too much, as residents’ worries shifted from high water bills to high water. But the remarkable deluge must not be allowed to foster complacency about where Wichita will get enough water decades from now.
Just a couple of months ago, the Wichita City Council had an intense debate about whether to shut off 12 decorative fountains to save water. City staff was pondering $1,000 fines and 500 percent rate hikes for water over-users. Earlier this year, many of the boat docks at Cheney Reservoir were on dry ground, and that source of 60 percent of the city’s water was projected to be gone by August 2015 if the drought persisted. People joked that the Arkansas River needed mowing.
Then, in late July, the rains came and kept coming. Suddenly, water was surging through the Arkansas and Little Arkansas rivers, the Big Ditch and the I-135 canal and spilling out of lakes and creeks.
By Friday, city officials were declaring the two-year drought over and Cheney Reservoir more than full, up from the 58 percent capacity in February. Nature staged quite a turnaround. Citizens deserve praise as well, for demonstrating a greater commitment to conservation since the spring.
Of course, the cause for celebration may be lost on area residents dealing with inundated basements, sewer backups, flooded vehicles and damaged property. Those unaffected should help the American Red Cross and other agencies help their neighbors throughout central Kansas recover.
And it’s frustrating that the rain finally came at a time when malfunctioning equipment has diminished how much water the city can pull from the overflowing Little Arkansas River to help recharge the Equus Beds aquifer, the city’s other water source. When $244 million has been spent on a public project, you’d expect it to be ready when it’s needed and to work as intended.
But the quick change of fortune does give city leaders some peace of mind, and some time to get the strategy right for the long term.
For example, surely the situation is no longer so dire that city officials need consider the proposal to buy high-priced potable water from El Dorado Reservoir. But as explored in a series of articles in the Aug. 4 Eagle, there are viable options available to Wichita, with other arrangements involving El Dorado Reservoir among the most promising.
Capturing, transporting and treating water can be complicated, time-consuming and costly, with no shortage of legal and regulatory hurdles to overcome. And politicians don’t relish challenges that involve property and water rights – and thinking further ahead than re-election.
But as the 54-year-old Big Ditch has demonstrated so brilliantly in recent days, it can pay big to plan ahead.