Area's future riding on water study

Though you wouldn't know it from the lack of discussion and the unanimous vote, the Wichita City Council took a major step Tuesday in hiring Omaha-based HDR Engineering to rethink Wichita's water future.

Even citizens sick of seeing local governments use out-of-state consultants should hope for HDR's success. Its expertise could help determine whether Wichita continues to have the safe, reliable, affordable water supply that is essential to any community's economy and well-being for the long term.

It was also good to see City Manager Robert Layton decide that Chris Carrier, the city's capable public works director, would double as interim water director for now, waiting on a new permanent director until HDR's findings are in.

HDR now gets up to $185,000 from Wichita to spend a month analyzing the city's water use and water utility revenues, including shortfalls apparently related to record local rainfall in 2007 and 2008 and unusually high spending on a sewer line expansion.

It's probably too much to hope that HDR can figure out how to avoid rate hikes. The question is how big water bills will get — perhaps growing 15 percent this summer, with another 16 to 20 percent next year and more hikes to come.

It will be tragic if the consultant's agenda turns out to be deep-sixing the Aquifer Storage and Recovery Project, now that Wichita is 10 years and two phases into the four-phase, $550 million plan.

It's already worrisome that Layton has put a hold on new ASR construction, especially with another consultant having warned that a shutdown could cost as much as $40 million and with saltwater pollution still a threat to the aquifer's water quality.

Nobody expected it to be easy or cheap to capture and treat excess water from the Little Arkansas River to replenish the Equus Beds aquifer. But it's hard to think that a project as carefully studied and widely supported as ASR might be judged unsustainable now.

To their credit, Wichita and just-retired water utility director David Warren took the lead on ASR, but it has required a remarkable coalition of stakeholders — from the groundwater district board and business groups to other local governments, the state and Kansas' congressional delegation.

Now, many shared interests are riding on the consultant's report, and on the will of city leaders and citizens to pay for both whatever comes next and whatever it will take to ensure that the water is there when the region needs it.