At least the Wichita City Council has options for ensuring the quality and quantity of the city’s water supply. By picking the most cost-effective path now, city leaders can stave off the unthinkable day when Wichita lacks not only water but also affordable access to more.
There were no perfect solutions presented at Tuesday’s council workshop, unfortunately. Keeping the water running will be expensive, part of the list of municipal needs including $2.1 billion in water and sewer infrastructure work over the next 30 years.
But City Manager Robert Layton seemed on target in tentatively advancing two possibilities: buying treated water from El Dorado Reservoir and expanding the city’s Equus Beds aquifer recharge and storage recovery project, or ASR.
Though getting raw water from El Dorado had seemed preferable, the construction costs and impact on water rates now look too steep. If Wichita gets the water already treated, it would be at no charge initially, while Wichita paid $16 million to upgrade its infrastructure and $234 million to El Dorado for capital costs of a treatment plant and a pipeline hooking into the 21st and Webb booster station. That plan sounds promising.
So does the proposed $198 million expansion of the ASR, which captures and treats excess Little Arkansas River water and injects it into the Equus Beds aquifer. However, it was alarming to learn Tuesday that the costly ongoing ASR project is generating only 1.8 billion gallons of water a year, which is half of what it was expected to produce.
The ASR was supposed to ensure that the Equus Beds as well as Cheney Reservoir would remain Wichita’s main water sources for many decades. As the ASR countered depletion of the Equus Beds, it also was intended to help hold back the underground salt plume that threatens the aquifer’s integrity as a municipal and agricultural water source. That important goal, which helped galvanize regional support and gain state funding, shouldn’t be set aside as the city considers its next move.
Other ideas appear sidelined at this point, though, including the one about turning treated sewage water into drinking water – if not by its “ick” factor then by its $800 million capital price. Still, there may be some merit to proposals such as downstream riverbank storage wells and water reuse for industry and irrigation only.
The workshop also showed why water conservation must become an all-weather, long-term fact of life in Wichita, rather than something to encourage or mandate only during dry spells.