City Council to review water usage plan that exempts food-producing gardens

Gardeners will claim a victory Tuesday if the Wichita City Council approves an amended drought strategy.

Food-producing gardens that utilize drip irrigation or hand watering would be exempt from watering restrictions until the city reaches drought crisis levels under an amended plan returning to the council.

The new plan by council members Jeff Longwell and James Clendenin is a nod to those who rely on their annual gardens to grow food, council members said.

The plan is in response to the looming water shortage earlier this year, when the city’s water supply was threatened as the region moved into the third year of a major drought.

“I might suggest that we add some kind of language for those types of opportunities – community gardens, people growing their own food,” Longwell said last week. “I would think we’d want to address that.”

“It’s concerning to me, too,” Clendenin added. “My thought is that at least in Stage 3 we be able to still allow irrigation if you’re irrigating a certain way. Although I don’t know how you’d police that.

“But if we’re at 35 percent in Cheney (Reservoir, a water emergency), I don’t think you need to address that situation.”

The proposed four-stage plan would be triggered at each stage by average yearly conservation pool levels at Cheney Reservoir, a primary water source for the city. It still contains some hefty fines – up to $500 for repeat violators – but stops short of the controversial $1,000 fine for overusers proposed last spring by city staff members.

The stages include:

• Voluntary conservation – Triggered when the 12-month Cheney water level average moves below 90 percent. No penalties or mandatory restrictions would be imposed. The city will offer rebates to encourage conservation, and a multifaceted public marketing campaign will be launched to raise drought awareness. The water conservation measures launched last summer by the city would continue.

• Mandatory restrictions – Triggered when the 12-month Cheney water level average moves below 70 percent. Customers would be restricted to one day a week of outdoor water use only during the coolest part of the day from 8 p.m. to 10 a.m. First-time violators would receive a warning, followed by penalties of $50 and $100. Businesses generating economic activity directly from outdoor watering, like golf courses, car washes and greenhouses, would be exempt, as would the specified gardeners. City fountains would remain operational.

• Irrigation bans – Triggered when the 12-month Cheney water level average drops below 50 percent. All outdoor water usage would be prohibited, except for businesses exempted under mandatory restrictions and the specified gardeners. Violators would receive a warning after the first infraction, followed by penalties from $250 to $500. The city would rush all repairs to water main breaks and irrigation leaks and would cut the operating hours at public fountains.

• Declaration of a water emergency – Triggered when the 12-month Cheney water level average moves below 35 percent. All outdoor watering, including by businesses, would be prohibited. All customers would be ordered to decrease their indoor usage by 15 percent, except for area hospitals. It is at this level when gardeners would be prohibited from outside watering. Penalties would range from a warning to a $500 fine, with a flow restrictor installed on the water meters of three-time violators. All city fountains would be shut off.

Water levels remain good at Cheney this month, at about 98 percent in the conservation pool. As a result, the city is drawing a little more of its drinking water than usual from the lake.

Related stories from Wichita Eagle