Aquifer funds could dry up

Drought and crop irrigation is rapidly depleting one of the Wichita region’s primary sources of drinking water, and state funding for a project to keep that water source available for decades to come is in doubt.

The city of Wichita is asking the state for about $2 million next year to help protect its underground water supply north of the city. The Water Authority, the group that advises the governor on water policy, is recommending that the city get the money. But, city officials say, the Department of Agriculture, which controls most of the water in the state, may be unlikely to support the request.

Since 2009, Wichita has received about $3 million in state money to help pay for a project that takes above-normal water flows off the Little Arkansas River north of Wichita, purifies the water and puts it into the Equus Beds aquifer.

Because the aquifer is less susceptible to drought than lakes and rivers, it is seen as the key to Wichita’s future ability to provide water for residents as well as businesses that need it for manufacturing.

State funding accounts for about 1 percent of the total aquifer recharge cost. Federal funds kick in another 2 percent. Wichita residents, businesses and nearby cities that buy water from Wichita pay for 97 percent of the project via their water bills, which have climbed steadily in recent years.

The city has requested $2 million for next year and doesn’t plan to ask the state for money again. Dale Goter, the city’s lobbyist, said a Department of Agriculture official said the department won’t support such requests.

Of the $2 million requested, the city is poised to get $500,000 from a state water fee fund, which is about half of what Wichita water customers pay in through their bills each year. The other $1.5 million would come from state general funds, for which there is intense competition.

“It’s not the rosiest of prospects for extra money,” Goter said.

The Kansas Department of Agriculture did not respond to questions about whether it would support Wichita’s request, and Gov. Sam Brownback’s office said it is looking closely at all budget issues.

In a brief interview, Brownback said he doesn’t know of how Wichita’s aquifer recharge project is “being cut into.”

“We’ve put in pretty generously to that project,” he said.

Meanwhile, Brownback’s budget director has asked state departments to come up with 10 percent budget cuts as part of an exercise that Brownback says will help him learn where the state can cut and where it can’t.

“I want to see what the proposals look like, and then we are going to do everything we can do to get our costs down while we protect core functions of government,” he said. “So the strategy has not changed.”

With the Water Authority’s endorsement, the funding request next will move to Brownback’s office, and he will decide whether to include the money in his recommended budget, which typically becomes public in January. Then lawmakers will debate the funding, agree on a state budget, and Brownback again will review it, with an opportunity to veto specific line items.

If Wichita’s request isn’t successful, the $2 million will likely be paid by the businesses and residents who buy Wichita water as opposed to being shouldered by water fees and taxes paid statewide.

Aquifer declining

The Equus Beds aquifer, which lies beneath a four-county area north of Wichita, was slowly depleted over a few decades as farmers pumped out water for crops and Wichita tapped it for municipal customers.

It hit an all-time low in 1993. With levels down, water contaminated with salty brine left behind by oil companies’ evaporation pits began to migrate toward the section of the aquifer Wichita taps. That water is virtually unusable.

That realization spawned the $550 million aquifer storage and recovery project.

By putting water back into the aquifer, the city is storing water for future use. Raising the water level around the city’s wells also pushes away the saltwater, keeping the wells from becoming contaminated.

The first phase started drawing above-average flows off the Little Arkansas River years ago. While it can only pump a modest 10 million gallons of water per day into the aquifer, the aquifer got a huge boost from several years of wet weather – including a record-breaking 53.8 inches of rain in 2008.

Overall, about half of the water drawn from the Equus Beds is used to irrigate crops. Municipal use accounts for about 24 percent and industrial use is 13 percent, according to city figures.

Now, Kansas is locked in a historic drought that has stretched many water sources across the state to a breaking point. Wichita can’t even use its multimillion-dollar aquifer recharge project because the state has banned most users from drawing water from the Little Arkansas River.

The aquifer has lost about half of what it gained from several wet summers and the first phase of the aquifer recharge project, which studies show accounted for about 1 percent of the aquifer recharge.

Since the start of this year, Wichita has pumped water into the aquifer only 14 days – mostly in February and March, said Deb Ary, the city’s superintendent of production and pumping.

The city doesn’t yet have new data that would show how low the aquifer may be as a result of increased agricultural pumping and municipal use.

“We’re not at a critical point,” Ary said. “But we are watching it.”

Meanwhile, the city is getting closer to putting the second phase of the recharge project online. Construction is mostly done, but the city and its contractors need to finish a battery of tests before it can be put to work.

City officials hope the second phase, which will pump up to 30 million gallons per day from the river, goes online next spring. A third phase that would add another 30 million gallons per day is on hold while the city explores new technologies and other options to make sure it’s prepared for the future.

“What’s happening right now is a good example of why we need it,” Ary said. “We knew the drought was going to come; our hope was to have ASR (the recharge project) ready and have all the water in the ground beforehand.”