Drinking water can’t look swampy or taste like brine. That’s why Wichita had better heed two recent reminders to assure the quality as well as the quantity of its future water supply, whether or not voters approve the sales tax in November.
Most of the public debate about the proposed 1-cent citywide sales tax has focused on the portion of the estimated $400 million that would go for economic development.
But first and foremost, the ballot question mentions using as much as $250 million “to pay the costs for the purchase, development, maintenance and operation of a long-term water supply.” And though the worry for much of last year was about running out, especially when the Cheney Reservoir conservation pool dwindled to about 35 percent before the summer deluge, the project now seems as important for its potential to guarantee that Wichita’s water remains safe to drink.
The first reminder came with the unappetizing images of Toledo’s toxic green water. Because of Lake Erie’s algae problems, 500,000 customers were warned Aug. 2-5 not to drink or even touch the tap water. “It has changed everyone’s life in Toledo,” an Ohio state representative said Friday, likening the crisis to a horror movie.
For a variety of reassuring reasons, including careful long-running management of the watershed, Wichita officials say it’s unlikely that the blue-green algae blooms that are common in Kansas lakes would threaten Cheney Reservoir’s reliability as the source of 60 percent of the city’s water. But as Tom Langer, director of the bureau of environmental health for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, told The Eagle: “Everyone – agriculture and urban – has a stake in this thing. Think about the number of times you fertilize your yard, the kinds of chemicals you’re using.”
And, we’d add, what would happen if toxic algae or anything else made Cheney’s water undrinkable.
At the very least, it would put more pressure on the Equus Beds aquifer, which now supplies 40 percent of Wichita’s water and was the focus of the second recent reminder for Wichita related to water quality. That’s a new study by the U.S. Geological Survey warning “chloride contamination of Wichita’s water supply inevitable unless actions taken.”
The plume of high-chloride groundwater northwest of the Wichita well field is a known and closely monitored threat, and indeed helped motivate the city to launch its Aquifer Storage and Recovery project to replenish the aquifer with excess water drawn from the Little Arkansas River. Recharging the aquifer is meant to slow the plume’s progress; the survey found it had traveled one mile between 1990 and 2008, remains a mile from the well field, and moves about a foot a day. Holding it off now will cost less than cleaning it up later.
As the City Council debated how a sales tax might fund a future water source, an expansion of the ASR project started looking like the best choice. Though the state government has been a funding partner with the city on the ASR, its success is so vital to the region and state that more help is justified.
But no matter what happens at the Statehouse or on the sales tax vote, failure to keep Wichita’s water both potable and plentiful will not be an option.
For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman