Need justifies aquifer investment

Most Wichitans would like to pay whatever it costs to get water to their faucets and no more, and are dumbfounded by a municipal water system that not only fails to encourage conservation but punishes it by raising rates when usage declines.

But the community’s future depends on an abundant water supply. As they decide what to do about the financial woes of the city’s water utility, Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer, City Council members and City Manager Robert Layton must proceed with foresight and resolve.

With the review of the utility by Omaha-based HDR Engineering now complete, the question may not be whether the city can afford to continue to pursue the Equus Beds aquifer recharge project but how it can afford not to.

Wichita is 10 years and two phases into the four-phase, $550æmillion project, or ASR, which captures and treats excess water from the Little Arkansas River to replenish the aquifer. It’s won widespread praise and support, including another $530,000 from the Legislature last month for fiscal 2011 despite a brutal state budget shortfall.

Pressing on will require some political nerve on the part of the mayor and council, especially with the recovery so sluggish, the anti-tax mood so pervasive and the next election just nine months away. It will add to the pain of citizens by adding to their water bills this year and beyond — and not just a little bit, but by perhaps 8æpercent later this year, 19æpercent in 2011 and smaller amounts for years to come.

But it was hard to see much in the consultants’ report that justified stopping or even slowing the recharge project, including the potential savings of just 11 cents per month on water bills this year if the city delayed parts of the project.

Plus, it’s already working. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the recharge project gets part of the credit for boosting water levels in the aquifer, which in turn has slowed the migration of saltwater contamination toward the municipal and irrigation wells.

That said, there’s more to Wichita’s water problem than the question of the pace and scale of the recharge project. The recent scrutiny has raised some worthy questions, including:

Why not buy water from El Dorado Lake, which El Dorado City Manager Herb Llewellyn said is “very underutilized” and, according to a 2000 study, could involve a comparatively modest startup cost of $32æmillion?

Why not ask local industry to use treated sewage water for manufacturing and cooling?

Why not get serious about conservation, which hasn’t served the utility’s bottom line but certainly serves the long-term goal of ensuring Wichita’s water supply? To that end, why not charge heavy water users more?

And as Brewer recently told the Kansas Water Authority, “the Equus Beds project serves not just the citizens of Wichita, but a wide range of agricultural and regional interests who are not directly contributing to the cost of the ASR project.” Why not? Shouldn’t the cost of the recharge project be shared by all who benefit from it?

After the recent tumult of the resignation of longtime water director David Warren amid revelations of the utility’s financial problems, city leaders now have the benefit of more information and some clear options. How they counter the water problem, with a June 15 vote on rates and beyond, won’t just affect water bills right away but also the region’s water availability and economic viability for many years. Citizens will understand there’s a price for that, even if they hate paying it.