As Wichitans use less, water revenue falls $2 million short of projections

A wet summer and conservation efforts have left the city’s water revenue $2 million short of projections in the first half of 2013, finance officials told the Wichita City Council on Tuesday.

But city officials pledged no emergency rate increases as a result of the downturn in water use, expressing confidence that the water fund’s reserves and consistent pricing will cover any shortfalls.

Indoor water use and outdoor irrigation combined are down almost 22 percent, said Ben Nelson, strategic services manager for the city’s water department.

“So it’s the total amount of water reduction from January 1 through August 19. It totals 3.2 billion gallons less than what was used last year during this time,” Nelson said.

Water usage this summer topped 2012 on only two days out of 150, Nelson said: June 21 and July 8.

“That’s proof, actually, that citizens have taken the water conservation thing seriously,” City Manager Robert Layton said.

In February, city officials said that Cheney Reservoir – source of 60 percent of the city’s drinking water – would go dry in August 2015 if a prolonged drought continued. The city launched a public conservation program and offered rebates for energy-efficient appliances.

Record-breaking rainfall in the Wichita area this summer has boosted Cheney water levels back to normal and eased a potential water crisis.

City Finance Director Shawn Henning outlined the changes in the water fund during the second-quarter 2013 financial report to the council.

The city’s overall budget performance for the first half of 2013 is on target for a balanced budget, after bridging a $1.3 million budget deficit earlier this summer, Henning said. Sewer revenue – bolstered by rate increases that went into effect in January – is up $2 million through the first half of the year.

The city raised residential water and sewer rates by about 3 percent – $1.19 to $7.74 per month depending on use – and business and industrial rates by about 7 percent. That’s far below the 10 percent to 15 percent hikes projected in 2010 when city officials discovered a major shortfall in the city’s water fund.

Despite this year’s shortfall, Layton and council members said they are confident the city won’t face any late-year rate increases or other emergency moves to bolster the water fund. Single-digit annual water rate increases have been built into the city’s financial planning for the water department.

“Back when we did cost modeling of certain usage scenarios, we came up with a plan to raise rates gradually every year to prevent the old ups and downs,” Layton said.

“And we have sufficient reserves in the water fund because of the way we’ve gotten ahead in the past two high-usage summers to handle this,” Vice Mayor Pete Meitzner said.

Water revenue isn’t the only city fund hit hard by the wet summer and by early spring snowfalls, Henning reported.

City golf course use is down about 18 percent because of the weather, and ridership declines have left transit revenue off slightly, she said.

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