City may fine residents who use too much water $1,000

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Keeping your lawn alive and green this summer could cost you an extra $1,000 a month under a water conservation proposal unveiled Wednesday by Wichita officials.

The city’s water advisory committee got its first look at a short-term solution, City Manager Robert Layton and public works officials said, to drought-plagued Cheney Reservoir. Cheney, the source of 64 percent of the city’s water, was forecast by the city in January and again on Wednesday to go dry in mid-2015.

The plan unveiled Wednesday does not include any rate increases, city officials said.

And if the city thought buying water from El Dorado Lake was a long-term solution to the water shortage, those hopes suffered a blow Wednesday when city officials broke the news that El Dorado’s first offer is too pricey – more than double the price Wichita charges its wholesale water clients – and doesn’t deliver enough water.

The target of the conservation plan, which will go before the City Council on June 4, is eliminating 50 percent of the city’s summertime outdoor irrigation – almost 25 percent of the city’s yearly water usage, said Alan King, the city’s public works director.

Armed with multiple surveys that they say show public support for “fine-based water restrictions,” city officials are proposing to fine anyone $1,000 a month who crosses 310 percent of their average winter water usage, a complicated number that most Wichita residents admittedly don’t understand.

The 310 percent is “about what it would take to keep a lawn alive,” said Ben Nelson, a public works official.

The news was even more grim for a potential long-term water source – El Dorado Lake.

King and Nelson revealed to the committee that the city received a sales proposal Tuesday from the El Dorado City Council: 10 million to 11 million gallons of treated potable water a day – less than the 15 million gallons a day city officials would want – in a long-term deal that would cost the city between $5 and $6 per thousand gallons. That’s more than twice the $2.48 the city of Wichita charges wholesale customers like the city of Derby.

“Although that’s not real attractive, it is water in a drought,” King told the committee.

Fine details

Under the plan, overusers would get a month’s grace period, city officials said, through a letter warning them that their water usage qualifies for the hefty fine. But a second month of high water use would result in a $1,000 fine.

Committee members objected to the fine, questioning its fairness. Several proposed a set of graduated penalties for water overuse, perhaps as much as three- or four-fold for overusers. Layton said after the meeting the committee’s penalty proposal could also be offered as an option for the council.

But Layton said the city’s already doing that – charging $8.56 per thousand gallons for Tier III overuse.

“And that hasn’t been an incentive for conservation at all,” Layton said.

There’s a political factor as well: Council members rebelled in February when city staff proposed a “punitive rate” plan for big users, which would have raised their rates as much as 113 percent.

“I think you’re pushing that stone uphill,” Layton told the committee. “The council is not thrilled with it, and everything in our public engagement process shows that the public is much more supportive of a penalty approach. That’s why we shifted gears. It’s going to be hard for public officials to support that.”

“We don’t like the penalty approach,” King said. “We can’t think of a better one.”

Several committee members pushed for the fines to be temporary, removed by the city when drought conditions eased.

But others – and several members of the crowd – objected to that, saying the removal of the fines would send a message to residential water users that no further conservation is needed.

Equus Beds, rebates

The other parts of the city’s short-term water conservation plan focus on drawing more water from the Equus Beds and less from Cheney Reservoir. To do that, the city’s well field in the Equus Beds will have to be modified with deeper wells, and the city’s water treatment plant will require some capital improvements to handle the well water.

The move to the groundwater aquifer isn’t without risk, King said.

“The Equus Beds are over-appropriated,” he said. “More water is being drawn out than recharged.”

King likened the city’s aquifer recharge project to a “savings account: taking water from the river when it’s available and depositing it in the aquifer.”

The problem is the drought, King said. River water isn’t readily available.

“Right now, this is like starting a savings account when you’re unemployed,” he said.

Plus, accelerating the city’s water withdrawal from the Equus Beds will accelerate the spread of salty oil field brine from the Burrton area throughout the aquifer.

City officials also will propose rebates for water-efficient appliances, like washers, and for toilets. Committee members urged that rain and weather sensors for lawn sprinkler systems also be included.

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