Wichita to cut its own water use as it copes with drought

City officials figure if they’re going to ask residents to conserve water, they had better step up and practice what they’re preaching.

“Lead by example,” said Alan King, director of public works and utilities.

So his department, park and recreation and the fire department – three prime users of water – put together a list of things they can do save water.

Some of those measures are already in place. No more children getting sprayed down at community events by firefighters.

Other proposals being considered include switching to waterless street sweeping, reducing how often fire hydrants are tested and using a pump station’s cooling water for irrigation at city-owned Botanica Gardens.

And then there are the fountains. Perhaps you’ve noticed the city’s 18 fountains are off now, a move prompted by the drought.

But the internal water conservation plan presented to the City Council on Tuesday would allow for reduced use of the WaterWalk Waltzing Waters fountain system and the five interactive fountains. That plan calls for the 12 decorative fountains to remain off.

If all the conservation measures in the plan were to be implemented, it would save about 43.5 million gallons of water annually. To put that in perspective, the city and all of its customers use 18 billion gallons annually during a normal year; that spiked to 22 billion each of the last two years because of the drought.

The plan was presented to the council to get their response, not for a vote, City Manager Robert Layton said.

And it did bring a feisty reaction.

Council member Pete Meitzner said the savings of 1.26 million gallons of water from shutting off the decorative fountains was an “insignificant amount” compared with the demand. He also objected to being given a copy of the plan right before the meeting because it didn’t leave him time to thoroughly review it.

Council member Janet Miller said a million gallons wasn’t a small amount.

If the city wasn’t going to use the fountains they built, Meitzner interjected from the other end of the bench, “Then we need (an ordinance) that says we don’t build any more fountains.”

“Excuse me, Councilman, I was speaking,” Miller said. “It sends the wrong message for us to have fountains going. I’m also a little offended at the belittling of the staff’s efforts.”

She also noted that city officials sent a copy of the conservation plan via email to council members 10 days earlier.

“If we’re looking at this for the first time this morning, let’s take ownership of that,” Miller said.

Meitzner said turning off the fountains projects an image of “emptiness” to visitors.

“That’s a bad image,” he added.

Council members intend to discuss the plan at a future meeting. No date has been set.

The interactive fountains, such as Celebration Plaza in Riverside Park, would have motion sensors installed for about $1,000 each while hours of operation would be reduced 10 percent.

The $3.5-million WaterWalk fountains, which incorporate 150-foot-high streams of water synchronized to lights and music, haven’t been used much. They had been in storage since 2009, as the WaterWalk master plan underwent changes.

They were unveiled last fall and operated until shutting down for the winter. Original plans called for three 20-minute daily shows, but the current plan calls for cutting that to two 10-minute shows each day. It would also trim the show season from seven days a week, May through December, to Fridays through Sundays from July 1 through the end of August.

The modified schedule would save 2.5 million gallons annually and $9,225 in costs.

The biggest cut in water use would come from how the city handles its grass-covered land, excluding athletic fields and golf courses.

First, watering would be reduced so the grass would go into a dormant state. The grass also would be mowed at a higher level; it would need less water because the roots would be shaded and evaporation would be cut. That plan has not yet been implemented.

At golf courses, more effort would be made to establish warm season grasses on all fairways and tees that are irrigated with city water. Turf also would not be replaced all at once.

The total savings for the first year would be a little less than 983,000 gallons.

Three of the city’s five golf courses – Tex Consolver, Sims and Auburn Hills – use only well water. McDonald uses stored storm water from the ponds that were built to hold runoff, said Doug Kupper, director of park and recreation.

L.W. Clapp is the course most dependent on city water, he added.

Other measures call for hiring two employees to improve response time to repair leaks for public works and park and recreation and change landscape design guidelines. That would include avoiding use of plants that are not listed as “water-wise” by Kansas State University and the Sedgwick County Extension office.

Part of the plan already being implemented is using treated ground waste water to water city trees. The approach is estimated to save 690,000 gallons annually.

The plan also is considering a pilot program to reduce inspections of the city’s 17,000 fire hydrants, which are currently checked annually. It takes 500 gallons of water each time a hydrant is inspected, totaling 8.5 million gallons yearly.

Over the next two years, the fire department will consider two different approaches: do bi-annual inspections or reduce the number of hydrants inspected each year by one fourth.

“If we can pare it back safely, we will,” said Chase Fosse, an assistant to the city manager. “If the answer is no, we won’t do anything.”

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