Wichita City Council OKs amended drought plan exempting food growers

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Wichita’s gardeners and water conservationists won a significant victory Tuesday when the City Council approved an amended drought plan that exempts food growers and commits to a continued push for water conservation.

The new drought plan exempts food-producing gardens that use drip irrigation or hand watering from watering restrictions until the city reaches drought crisis levels. And water conservation will remain a focus, council members said, through continued marketing efforts and the possible renewal next year of the city’s rebate program for energy-efficient appliances.

It also may mean that landscaping requirements will be relaxed during a drought, city officials said.

“This is a very proactive program for us as we move forward,” council member Lavonta Williams said.

Still under consideration is how the city will handle conservation in the future and what stance it will take on landscaping requirements during a drought. City Manager Robert Layton said the city’s planning department will review the longer-term issues.

Council member Janet Miller said she didn’t want to lose sight of conservation during normal rainfall periods such as the current one. She asked for a review of conservation measures at the end of the year, including a possible extension of the city’s rebate program for energy-efficient appliances.

Officials also said they are investigating reports that city water meter readers are telling customers they have been ordered to no longer offer advice on water conservation because the city’s water revenue is falling.

Layton and public works chief Alan King said Tuesday that any such statements are “in direct violation of city policy.” King is investigating the reports.

Earlier this summer, Layton told the council that the city’s water rates, and annual increases of around 5 percent, had been structured to avoid any significant budget issues in the water department.

The drought plan approved by the council includes these stages:

• Voluntary conservation: Triggered when the 12-month Cheney Reservoir water level average moves below 90 percent. No penalties or mandatory restrictions will 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 will continue.

• Mandatory restrictions: Triggered when the 12-month Cheney water level average moves below 70 percent. Customers will be restricted to one day a week of outdoor water use during the coolest part of the day from 8 p.m. to 10 a.m. First-time violators will 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, will be exempt, as will food gardeners. City fountains still will operate.

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

• Water emergency: Triggered when the 12-month Cheney water level average moves below 35 percent. All outdoor watering, including by businesses, will be prohibited. All customers will be ordered to decrease indoor use by 15 percent, except for hospitals. At this level, gardeners will 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 will be shut off.

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