Eagle editorial: Still need to conserve water

The recent rains apparently postponed the specter of an empty Cheney Reservoir until at least 2016. But the situation still demands an aggressive all-of-the-above strategy on the city’s part to stave off the day when Wichitans turn on the tap and find that nothing happens.

Right now there are no shortages of strong feelings and productive ideas about the looming shortage of water, as evidenced by the many speakers and heated debate on the bench at Tuesday’s Wichita City Council meeting. Too many questions remain about how best to cut water use, including about the fairness and logistics of the proposals to impose $1,000 monthly fines or 500 percent water-rate increases on people whose summer use exceeds 310 percent of their average winter consumption. So the council was right to table those punitive measures, which seemed like a prescription for dead lawns and empty pools and for jaw-dropping water bills on little old ladies who just wanted their flowers to grow.

Instead, the council approved a rebate program for those who buy rain barrels and high-efficiency appliances and opted to deepen wells and modify the water treatment plant in order to draw more water from the Equus Beds aquifer.

The meeting made clear that as much hard work as the city staff has put into the issue, more can be done, including researching other Kansas cities’ strategies and working with businesses and developers to reduce demand. It may make sense to let Cheney’s water level trigger restrictions – one idea among several to be explored later this summer. And why does the city seem to be acting alone on something that’s a regional issue?

As it hones its plan, the city also needs to focus its message. Citizens still have not forgotten how the city punished water conservation a few years ago by raising water rates when usage declined.

This year the city has confused the public by warning in January of a looming crisis that would require water restrictions, threatening big rate increases and fines in May, then saying “Never mind” on Monday, as if a big rain last week somehow made all the difference.

It didn’t. Wichita needs to use less water, with an eye toward not only the next year but the next 50 years. Citizens should rethink their water usage and change their behavior now, before the city takes steps it deems necessary to ensure that they do.

For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman