Eagle editorial: Water hikes dispiriting

If there’s anything more dispiriting than the upward spiral of Wichita’s water and sewer rates, it’s the apparent inability of city leaders to do much more than sympathize with citizens’ pain and remind them that things could have been worse.

The reasons for the steady rate hikes forecast over the next decade are familiar by now, including the high costs of the long-term project to recharge the Equus Beds in an effort to extend the regional aquifer’s life and to protect it from a polluting salt plume.

The ample rains that reduced water usage a few years ago further destabilized the system’s finances, requiring the city to keep asking for more and more money from water customers. Technology upgrades, replacement water lines and meters, federal mandates for wastewater treatment, and inflation also are driving up rates.

But knowing what’s going on is little comfort for those who haven’t gone a year without a rate increase since 1997 and who could be asked to pay 56 percent higher rates over the next decade, according to the latest recommendations by the city’s water utilities advisory committee.

As the Wichita City Council hears a presentation about water and sewer rates in a workshop Tuesday – including proposals for a likely average 5.8 percent combined hike in 2013, ranging from 2.3 percent for high-use residential customers to about 7 percent for commercial and industrial users – it will hear about some notable and successful countermeasures, too.

Changes to operations, staffing and debt are making the increases far less dramatic than anticipated back in March 2010, adding up to what the city calls “annual savings” of $697.25 for commercial customers and $109.98 for residential users.

Now, in addition to higher rates, there is talk of linking future water-line extensions to the recovery of the economy and housing market. That sounds like common sense, given that the city already has 2,600 vacant lots with water and sewer lines in place.

As city officials take the rate-hike proposals to the community over the coming weeks, before the council votes in November, it will be important to explain to the community how the outcome of the Nov. 6 ballot question on water fluoridation could affect future rates. Even if private donors stand ready with $1 million to help subsidize Wichita’s move to fluoridation, that will leave another $1.3 million in startup costs and $570,000 annually to be paid by someone, presumably water users.

And it cannot be stated often or fervently enough that Wichita deserves more help with the costs of the aquifer recharge project. This year Gov. Sam Brownback vetoed half of the $1 million the Legislature had appropriated to the project. Next year Wichita expects to ask for a $2 million final state payment – a small amount compared with the project’s $250 million price tag, but a tough sell if the Brownback tax cuts start to dry up the state’s revenue stream.

But with municipal use of Equus Beds water amounting to 24 percent, compared with half of its use for agriculture and 13 percent by industry, it is unfair for Wichita water customers to shoulder 97 percent of the responsibility for ensuring the aquifer will continue to provide water to 1 in 5 Kansans for decades to come.

In any case, Wichita water customers can expect to pay more, and more, and more.

For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman