City of Wichita proposes water-use plan in case of future drought

The city of Wichita plans to be ready the next time Cheney Reservoir threatens to go dry.

City officials rolled out a proposed water management plan Tuesday – including the resurrection of an unpopular $1,000 fine for water overuse – for the next time a drought strikes south-central Kansas.

And history is clear, said city public works director Alan King: There will be a next time.

“When we last talked to you on June 4, we were in a very different situation,” King said. “We were in the third year of a significant drought and looking at what sorts of options we could take to protect our water resources.”

But a wet August helped fill Cheney Reservoir to 120 percent of capacity, King said, allowing the city to draw 75 percent of its water from the overfull lake.

The price for heavy water use – although criticized by council members again Tuesday – could be high in Wichita: Third-time offenders could be hit with a $1,000 fine and, in extreme cases, have equipment installed on their meters to forcibly limit their water use. The plan would require council approval.

City staff members are proposing a four-stage drought management plan, potentially triggered by Cheney’s water levels. They include:

• Stage 1: a minor drought managed through a water conservation rebate program and a publicity campaign to raise drought awareness, essentially what the city did this summer. This stage would be triggered when Cheney water levels drop below 90 percent of the conservation pool level. Business water use would not be affected.

• Stage 2: a stronger drought managed through limiting outdoor water use to certain days and hours. The city would take discretionary conservation measures, including shutting off fountains and limiting hydrant testing. The city also would shift water withdrawal for consumption to the Equus Beds from Cheney. This stage would be triggered when water levels drop below 70 percent of the conservation pool level. Business water use would not be affected.

This stage is the first appearance of fines for overuse of water: a warning on the first incident, $50 on the second incident and $100 for the third incident and beyond. Ben Nelson, the public works strategic services manager, said a study of seven cities – including Hays, Emporia, Olathe and Salina – indicates all levy some sort of fine for water overuse.

• Stage 3: a serious, longer-term drought managed by either consumption penalties for more than 310 percent of a home’s average winter water consumption or outdoor watering penalties. Here, fines would again be imposed: a warning for a first offense, $500 for a second offense and $1,000 for a third offense and beyond. This stage would be triggered when Cheney water levels drop below 50 percent of the conservation pool level. Again, business water use would not be affected.

• Stage 4: a water emergency, a crisis resulting from a prolonged drought. All seasonal watering would be banned, including business use. Residential customers would be required to cut their base use (internal home water use) by 15 percent. The first offense would receive a warning, the second offense a $500 fine and the third offense a $1,000 fine and the installation of a flow restrictor on the meter to cut off excess water use.

Meanwhile, the city is weighing several steps to increase its water supply, foremost among them a desalinization plant similar to the one in use in Hutchinson. Such plants remove salt and other minerals from water. Wastewater reuse, more use of the Equus Beds and a possible deal for water from El Dorado Reservoir are other options.

What was clear Tuesday is that the proposed fines may stop – again – with the City Council.

Vice Mayor Pete Meitzner demanded that the $1,000 penalty “be out of the conversation.”

“I think that’s something that drives residential decision-making,” he said, referencing the city’s ability to attract new homeowners.

Council member Jeff Longwell, who opposed the fines when they were first raised last spring, called for mandatory water restrictions in lieu of fines.

The latest drought-driven water shortage was raised suddenly by city staff members in late February, when projections showed Cheney would go dry by August 2015 unless the rains came. City officials launched a media blitz to educate consumers about the need to save water and offered $1 million in rebates for water-efficient appliances.

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