Wichita to draw more water from Equus Beds, offer conservation rebates

Wichita will shift more of the burden of its water needs to the Equus Beds aquifer and create a conservation rebate plan to extend the life of Cheney Reservoir at least two more years.

The City Council voted 7-0 Tuesday to adopt those measures, which include spending $5 million to drill deeper wells in the Equus Beds in an attempt to stave off effects of the drought on Cheney.

Rates will not increase because of those efforts, city officials said. And the city has delayed consideration of more punitive measures, such as a fine or rate increase for the biggest water users, until at least early July.

Conservation is still the bottom line, council member Janet Miller said during three hours of discussion and public input.

“We’re looking at a new normal in terms of water use,” she said. “The whole idea of finding new water is erroneous.”

The city will immediately switch to taking 35 to 40 percent of its water from Cheney, a drop from the previous 60 to 65 percent draw. Instead, about 60 percent will now be taken from the Equus Beds, the city’s other water source.

Over the next two years, the city will drill deeper wells in the aquifer so it can pull its full water right of 40,000 acre feet annually out of the Equus Beds.

The rebate program will offer $100 for the purchase of high-efficiency appliances like dishwashers and washing machines, low-flow fixtures and smart sensors on irrigation systems. Those who buy rain barrels will receive a $75 rebate.

The program will take effect July 1 and will run through the end of the year. It will also be retroactive to May 1.

Details about whether customers would receive a rebate check or have the amount credited to their water bill are still being worked out, King said. A list of what level of conservation would be required of an appliance will be drawn up and made public by the end of next week.

“We’ll base it on some generally accepted standards,” King said. “We’ll try to be as generous as possible. The whole idea is to make it so people will conserve. It’s not about putting up barriers.”

The efforts come after Cheney’s conservation pool – where the city gets its water – was at 58 percent capacity in February. It was projected that pool would run dry by August 2015.

If the drought continues, the changes are expected to extend the life of Cheney to 2017 or 2018, said Alan King, director of public works and utilities.

If the drought ends, the changes would mean Cheney wouldn’t run out of water for the foreseeable future, although its buffer to keep going in case of another drought would be diminished, he added.

Last Thursday’s storm significantly increased Cheney’s level, putting it at 70 percent of capacity after beginning the day at 64 percent.

City officials cautioned it would be wrong to expect too much of an impact from current rainy conditions. They noted that through the first five months last year, Cheney saw 7 inches of rainfall – one inch more than has fallen on the reservoir for the same period this year.

City officials are hoping that months of drought won’t follow this year’s rain as happened in 2012.

“If we had thought we were out of the woods coming out of the spring of 2012,” King said, “we would’ve been wrong. It gets back to an adaptive approach. We need to see what June does.”

More punitive measures could be on tap next month if June turns dry and it appears the drought will linger.

The city was on the verge of asking the council to approve levying a $1,000 fine or installing a 500 percent rate increase for the highest water users until last week’s storm brought some relief.

The city will revisit those measures in early July, as well as present a third option to the council that would use different thresholds at Cheney to trigger different responses – such as public announcements to conserve or enforcement measures.

Council member Jeff Longwell said it was “bad public policy” to do punitive fines and rate increases based off average winter water consumption.

The city’s plan called for the fine or rate increase to be figured off water use over 310 percent of the average monthly usage from December to March. For the purpose of figuring that percentage, the minimum average water use was set at 6,000 gallons monthly – the same base point used to figure the three tiers the city uses now for its billing.

Council member Pete Meitzner emphasized to city officials it was important they stress that everyone starts with at least that 6,000-gallon figure. He noted that many residents were concerned their allowance for the summer would be way too low because they spent the winters elsewhere or otherwise held their winter water use very low.

The council also authorized spending $1.4 million to design a plan to allow the water treatment plant to handle only groundwater from the Equus Beds. That may involve chemical and equipment changes at the plant.

A blend of Cheney surface water and the Equus Bed groundwater is now funneled into the plant and treated together. Having the option to handle only groundwater would be helpful if Cheney can no longer be used or must be shut down for repairs, city officials said.

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