Wichita’s water supply dwindling, city staff says

Wichita’s water demand will outstrip supply by mid-2015 if the drought doesn’t break. And City Council members will weigh several costly options Tuesday to boost the water supply.

Demand is about to outstrip a supply stressed by low water levels at Cheney Reservoir, a key local water source. The city staff wants to implement a solution within the next month.

Those solutions are going to cost Wichita residents money, potentially through a program to grab more water from the Equus Beds aquifer or through higher rates for people who water frequently during summer.

Alan King, the city’s director of public works, plans to deliver the grim message at a 9:30 a.m. City Hall workshop. He said the dual snowstorms of the past week will do little to help the water supply. The area needs more regular rainfall.

“We still have adequate water supplies,” King said, “but as summer irrigation comes, the demands increase significantly. If the drought continues for a third year as it has for the last two, we could get through but these options are a way for us to extend the life of our water supply.”

Council member Jeff Longwell said he’s ready to wade through King’s proposals.

“It’s absolutely a critical problem,” Longwell said.

The options King will present include:

•  A $5 million capital project to enhance the city’s Equus Beds well field in the Halstead area, drilling deeper pumps and replacing pumps to get to more of the water the city has the rights to in the aquifer.

“We’re at about half of our annual water rights from the aquifer right now,” King said. “Cheney Lake is our weak link. If it goes down further to the point there’s no more water to pull out of it, we’d have to pull it out of the Equus Beds.”

Here’s the kicker: The well work would extend the city’s water supply for 22 months, King said.

The Equus Beds groundwater recharge project is one Longwell questions.

“It’s never been a project I’ve been crazy about,” he. “I’ve always wondered why we don’t just buy water from El Dorado Lake and trickle it in there instead.”

Longwell also said he’s concerned about agricultural water use from the aquifer, which he said is “unaccounted for.”

•  Raising water rates for summer lawn irrigators by increasing rates on the last two tiers of the city’s three-tiered water pricing, which is based on average winter usage.

“We think that’s the more immediate result,” King said. “People have a fairly stable water use through the winter, but when you get to the summer, it jumps a bunch for some people and it’s almost always attributable to outside irrigation.

“So what we would be proposing is to significantly increase rates at the tier 2 and tier 3 rate levels to have our pricing work as an incentive to reduce irrigation.”

Specific increases would be directed by the city council, King said.

•  Enforcing voluntary water restrictions, including a 50 percent reduction in outdoor watering or a 100 percent reduction in outdoor watering, both slow-developing solutions to the water shortage.

“It takes a period of time — a year or two — to become a water police,” King said, “catching people who aren’t supposed to be using water and fining them.”

Neither adds a great deal of life to the current city water supply, King said: seven months with a 50 percent reduction; 21 months with a 100 percent reduction.

It wasn’t immediately clear Monday when the council might act on King’s proposals. The issue could be considered as early as the March 5 council meeting.

If the council opts to charge high residential water users more, King said, such a plan would have to be implemented in April to affect the summer 2013 watering season.

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