Water usage down in Wichita even as temperatures climb, dry spell continues

Wichita is holding up reasonably well to the first real heat wave of the summer, city officials say.

But local meteorologists are frowning over a dry spell that is in its sixth week.

Only 0.02 of an inch of rain fell in Wichita from thunderstorms that rolled through the region early Wednesday morning, leaving the city nearly 4.5 inches below normal for precipitation since June 1. Only 1.89 inches of rain has fallen since the first of June, according to data from the National Weather Service.

“That’s obviously a concern,” said Vanessa Pearce, a meteorologist with the weather service. “We need to be so much above normal just to get back to where we were” before the drought set in back in 2011.

Tuesday’s high of 107 was the hottest day of the year and the seventh 100-degree day of 2013 in Wichita. It also marked “the first major issue we’ve dealt with from heat this year” when pavement on Ridge Road buckled just south of Central, said Ben Nelson, a strategy manager for the city’s Public Works and Utilities Department.

“We expect to see increases during the summer in the number of water main breaks because of hot, dry weather,” Nelson said in an e-mail response to questions. “Dry soil increases the chances of main breaks due to the soil shrinking away from the pipes. On top of that, the high heat increases demand for water. With more water being pushed through the system, it increases the pressure inside the water lines.”

There has been a notable increase in water main breaks in the first half of 2013, he said, even though temperatures were down. As of Tuesday, there had been 314 water main leaks this year in the city. That’s up 36 percent over the same time last year.

The next two months will be the most vulnerable time for water main breaks, Nelson said, as dry soil shifts away from pipes that are handling the heaviest demand of the year.

Water usage in the city has jumped 33 percent in the past five weeks compared to the five weeks before that, he said. Compared to a year ago at this time, however, water usage is down more than 14 percent.

That represents 1.5 billion gallons of water saved through conservation efforts, Nelson said.

“With Cheney’s lake level below normal, we are encouraging Wichitans to continue their successful conservation efforts and to participate in our rebate program, which provide incentives to install water-efficient devices and appliances,” Nelson said.

Cheney Reservoir’s conservation pool – the part of the lake that the city draws drinking water from – was 71 percent full on Wednesday. There appears to be little chance of the water level increasing over the next several days, Pearce said, because no appreciable chances for rain are in the forecast for the next week or so.

About 75 percent of Kansas remains in some degree of drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, though that is down 20 percent from this time last year.

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