Special Reports

Talks continue between Wichita, El Dorado about water

City officials are immersed in discussions over a proposal that would bring up to 30 million gallons of water a day from El Dorado’s lake directly to Wichita.

El Dorado director of public utilities Kurt Bookout, the city’s water spokesman, said his city’s first offer is a plan to deliver up to 30 million gallons of potable water – usable for drinking and other consumption – a day to Wichita for between $5 and $6 per thousand gallons.

And there’s a significant “including” involved in the offer. The $5 to $6 figure includes construction costs for the pipeline to bring the water to the city’s pump station.

Wichita officials reacted negatively to the initial offer last week, but Bookout said the timing of his city’s letter – delivered on Tuesday night before the Wednesday meeting – “left some things in some confusion.”

“We’re absolutely open to discussion on this,” Bookout said. “The letter was vague, and at this point that was the intent. We’re so early on in the discussions that we really wanted to leave things open.”

Wichita city officials say they’re ready for water talks with El Dorado – but they don’t want potable water; just water that can be injected into the city’s Equus Beds recharge project.

“I consider this a starting point to have discussions,” council member Jeff Longwell said. “El Dorado has to work through some issues, but I have long been an advocate for bringing additional water supplies over to operate the (Equus Beds recharge project) more successfully.

“I’m not going to be a fan of potable water. It’s a lot more expensive and they make more money off of it.”

Wichita Vice Mayor Pete Meitzner said he’s monitoring the talks.

“There’s a good theory that says we can treat the water ourselves and pump it back in. We could treat it and use it. We’ve got the facilities if we can just get it here,” Meitzner said.

The federal government will not be at the table in any water negotiations between Wichita and El Dorado. El Dorado Lake’s water belongs to the city, said Nate Herring, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Tulsa, which built the lake.

“The city of El Dorado has the sole water storage contract with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Tulsa District,” Herring said. “The city of Wichita would work with them directly and federal involvement would be limited.”

Bookout said the El Dorado offer is based on “normal water conditions” at the lake, which he said still exist.

“Today, any time our lake is within 5 feet of the conservation pool (a specific amount of water in a reservoir dedicated to meeting water obligations, such as public consumption), we can sell 30 million gallons a day,” he said. “Today, we can sell 30 million gallons a day.”

But in periods of severe drought, if the lake falls 5 feet below the conservation pool the amount of water Wichita could buy would be reduced.

El Dorado consultants have determined the city could sell at least 10 million gallons of water a day, Bookout said, even at the “drought of record doubled,” – a drought twice as bad as the record 1950s drought that gripped Kansas for much of the decade.

Longwell said the El Dorado Lake water is important to Wichita, but only by stabilizing the reserves in the Equus Beds Aquifer.

“Here’s what I don’t get,” he said. “You look at our entire summer water usage, which is somewhere in the neighborhood of 15,000 acre-feet of water. We’re saying we can make improvements to our well field that gain us that much in the short-term. So what I’m having a tough time fully understanding is the urgency to take on a thousand-dollar fine that will encourage enough conservation that will get us to about 50 percent of our summer usage, which gets us through the drought. That doesn’t make sense, if we’re serious about adjusting the well field and gaining an additional 15,000 acre-feet there ... and use the El Dorado water for recharging the field.”

Council member Janet Miller endorsed that concept.

“I think that’s an idea that’s worth a lot of study,” she said.

Bookout said El Dorado wants “to work with Wichita,” but his city officials aren’t sure what direction the Wichita council is heading with water.

“What I keep hearing as I go to these meetings in Wichita is it seems like they’re minimizing the significance of the water we can deliver,” he said. “Given a two-year drought that’s ongoing, I think it’s a significant amount of water.”

The water talks with El Dorado are important, Meitzner said – and should be expanded regionally.

“Personally, I believe it’s going take a cooperative regional effort to get this thing solved. For sure south-central Kansas and likely the whole state,” the vice mayor said. “I don’t just want to solve Wichita’s problems knowing others have major problems. Let’s work to solve all of them.”

Miller agreed, but said she’s frustrated with public feedback that demonstrates “that our people don’t want to conserve water.

“I mean, we’re willing to pay $3 for a gallon of milk or $4 for a gallon of gas, neither which are essential to human survival, but we go through the roof at the idea of paying more than pennies for a gallon of water,” she said.

“We are going to need these kind of moderate- to long-term solutions. But we’ve got to come to the realization that we’re looking at a new normal with water, and we’re absolutely going to have to conserve what we have.”

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