Engineering firm to examine city's water use

The future of Wichita's marquee water supply project is in the hands of HDR Engineering Inc., an Omaha-based firm with vast experience on water projects.

City Council members unanimously approved a contract worth up to $185,000 Tuesday with very little discussion.

Over the next 30 days, HDR will try to answer perhaps the most difficult question in City Hall: How can the city ensure adequate water for the next 50 years without piling double-digit rate increases on regional water users every year for the foreseeable future?

The most commonly mentioned way to do that would be to slow down the second phase of the $550 million Equus Beds Aquifer Storage and Recovery project. But how will that affect the city's future water supply? How will that affect water rates? And will that allow polluted groundwater that's moving toward Wichita's wells to progress more? Those are all questions that city officials hope HDR can help answer.

The firm will also analyze the city's water use patterns to see what factors contributed to the decline in water use in Wichita in recent years. Is the poor economy leading industries to use less water? Are residents more conservative with water use after years of being asked to cut back? Or was it all the rain the area has had in recent years?

How did it come to this? In late 2009 and early 2010, City Manager Robert Layton and Finance Director Kelly Carpenter began questioning cash-flow figures presented by David Warren, who was then director of water utilities. Over the course of about three months, it became clear the city was on track to face a downgrading on its bond rating, which could cost taxpayers millions because of higher interest rates.

Layton said an emergency 15 percent increase will probably be needed effective June 1. Meanwhile, Layton and other officials said the city has to review the aquifer project to see whether it is still working as planned and whether there are alternatives that would ease the burden on water customers.