Politics & Government

Derby pumps can’t solve flood problem south of Wichita. Sedgwick County has no Plan B

There’s no relief in sight for homeowners south of Wichita who are battling groundwater that’s been flooding their basements for weeks.

The Sedgwick County Commission had approved a plan to ask Derby to turn on two abandoned water wells in an effort to lower the water table and relieve flooding for the homeowners who live in an unincorporated area between Haysville and Derby.

But that plan has now fallen apart, commissioners were told in an emergency special meeting Tuesday.

Derby checked the pumps on the wells. One’s inoperable and the other’s unreliable, according to David Spears, county public works director.

He said Derby is seeking a $70,000 guarantee from the county if it is to repair and run the wells.

Commissioners had expected to have to pay Derby about $15,000 to run the wells for two months.

They were part of Derby’s water supply until 2003, when the growing city opted to buy its water from Wichita rather than build its own water treatment plant.

Most agree that stopping the pumping of well water has raised the water table in the area.

Near-record rainfall last month and continuing into this month has raised it to the point where neighborhood basements are flooding from the bottom with a combination of water and silt.

The commissioners decided to essentially do nothing Tuesday, after hearing from and expressing sympathy for about a dozen homeowners who spoke at the meeting.

The residents said their situation was bad last week and has deteriorated with strong rains since then.

Ruth Baker said one of the worst moments came early Sunday morning when they faced a flooding basement and power outage.

While she and her husband rushed to get their emergency generator online and hooked up to their sump pumps to mitigate the flooding, the National Weather Service issued a tornado warning for their area.

“What should I do, send my kids to the basement to stand in the dark in the water in a quickly flooding basement or stand upstairs and risk the danger of a tornado?” she asked.

Neighbor Randell Rogers said “We’ve got water coming in my basement area like it’s an artesian well . . . with sand.”

“It’s like a spring. I could raise catfish in that sucker,” he said.

Like many of the neighbors along South Hillside and South Hydraulic, he said there was a noticeable difference in how fast the water dropped when the county and Derby turned on the pumps before to alleviate flooding over the years.

“We’re getting drowned out is what it is, so if you guys would find some way to get those pumps going again, it would be deeply appreciated,” he said.

Commissioner Jim Howell proposed a motion to spend $15,000 toward an effort to dewater the area, running at least the one working well and to “turn on whatever water wells we can.”

“There’s an urgency to this. People are suffering right now,” he said.

But Commission Chairman David Dennis told the homeowners he wouldn’t support Howell’s motion because “it doesn’t solve your problem.”

He said he would support studying a long-term fix, but he called the immediate pumping of ground water a “Band-Aid” approach.

Part of the problem, he said, is that the entire area isn’t draining, which means residents pump water out of their basements only to have it flow back down and get in again.

Commissioner Pete Meitzner cast the swing vote a week ago to ask Derby to turn on its well pumps.

On Tuesday, he cast the swing vote the other way, against Howell’s motion.

Commissioner Lacey Cruse, also a vote against Howell’s motion, proposed that the commission try to schedule a joint meeting with the Derby City Council to talk about the flooding, rather than communicating back and forth through staff.

“It sounds like we’re telling them what to do and they’re telling us what to do, when we should be sitting in the same room talking about it,” Cruse said.

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Senior Journalist Dion Lefler has been providing award-winning coverage of local government, politics and business in Wichita for 20 years. Dion hails from Los Angeles, where he worked for the LA Daily News, the Pasadena Star-News and other papers. He’s a father of twins, director of lay servant ministries in the United Methodist Church and plays second base for the Old Cowtown vintage baseball team.