City Council weighs importance, message of shutting off Wichita’s fountains to conserve water

Kids enjoy the water fountain at the Hyatt on Saturday, the last day of River Festival. (June 11, 2011)
Kids enjoy the water fountain at the Hyatt on Saturday, the last day of River Festival. (June 11, 2011) The Wichita Eagle

Shutting off or curtailing the flow of Wichita’s fountains sends a message, but two City Council members have distinctly different views of that message.

Pete Meitzner says it works against the city’s image and quality of life.

Janet Miller says it shows that the city is visibly “leading by example” to conserve water during a time of drought.

Both will have a chance to share their views again Tuesday when the City Council takes up the city’s proposed internal water conservation plan, which calls for leaving 12 decorative fountains off, reducing the use of five interactive fountains and significantly cutting back on the WaterWalk fountain.

“We have to have those fountains on,” Meitzner said. “I think it shows a sense of irresponsibility if we don’t honor a few things that help keep our city’s quality of life and vibrancy.

“We have empty circles in front of Century II. What are we going to put in there? Cactus and dirt? That’s crazy.”

Miller agrees — up to a point.

“Long term, I think fountains are a very important part of the beautification of our city,” she said. “In the short term, while we’re trying to educate folks on the real importance of the need to conserve water, it’s a significant way to make a point — more so than someone just visiting and saying, ‘Oh, that fountain must not be working today.’ ”

The plan was developed by city officials and presented for informational purposes to the council last Tuesday, to let council members know what steps the city was taking inside the ranks to conserve water while they try to preserve the life of Cheney Reservoir.

Besides the fountains, the plan calls for such things as reducing how often fire hydrants are tested, irrigating Botanica Gardens with a pump station’s cooling water and using treated ground wastewater from industrial use to water the city’s trees.

Cutting the grass higher on the city’s grass-covered land, excluding athletic fields and golf courses, is projected to save more than 38 million gallons annually, by far the biggest chunk in the plan that is projected to save the city 43.7 million gallons yearly.

All the council members seemed to agree the plan was terrific – except for the fountains piece. Meitzner objected, indicating the city was setting a policy that affected its image.

That put the plan in another realm, requiring the city to vote on it Tuesday. The council also can amend the plan.

“Some things I can do administratively,” City Manager Robert Layton said, “but the council sets policy. My job is to execute it.”

All of the city’s 18 fountains have been off this spring because of the drought.

The plan calls for 12 decorative fountains, including the water wall at the Hyatt Regency Wichita, to remain off. The five interactive fountains would have motion sensors installed for about $1,000 while hours of operation would be reduced by 10 percent. The WaterWalk fountain would have its hours cut and season significantly shortened.

Restrictions on the fountains would save about 3.8 million gallons. While water is recycled through the fountains, some water is lost from winds blowing water away from the fountains or evaporation, city officials said.

Meitzner said the water savings on the fountains in comparison to the total amount isn’t worth losing their value in appeal.

“It’s a small amount of water based on the big picture,” he said. “I commend the staff for the 40 to 50 million gallons they’ve already found. And there may be some fountains that are isolated that maybe we don’t need on.

“But the ones that are in Old Town, around Century II, they need to be on. The Hyatt was gorgeous. Now it looks like the great wall of Hyatt. I want to honor the investment we’ve made. To me, this is a no-brainer.”

Miller said pulling back on the fountains “demonstrates to the people the seriousness of the potential water situation.” She hopes people seeing the dry fountains will cause them to discuss the water issue.

“The city making visible efforts is an important part of the whole mix,” Miller said. “I think people will be asking, ‘Why aren’t the fountains on?’

“The answer to that question will certainly stimulate their thinking about, ‘Wow, maybe we really are in a time where I need to start thinking about conserving water.’ ”

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