Eagle editorial: Plan for next drought

Wichita leaders are smart not to let August’s historic deluge deter them from working to ensure the community has enough water for the future. The revised drought plan considered by the City Council this week would help do that, while helping residents know where they stand the next time Cheney Reservoir threatens to go dry.

Council members wisely delayed a vote on the proposal until staff can take into account the irrigation needs of community gardens and individuals who grow their own produce to feed their families. There are other recommendations that invite questions, and might have the unavoidable effect of encouraging more Wichitans to exempt themselves from restrictions by digging wells. (Those doing so would have to display a sign in their yard with the words “well water.”)

But the four-stage plan would bring some clarity and strategy to the city’s water use, without resorting to the punitive 500-percent rate hikes and $1,000 fines that caused such an uproar when proposed earlier this year.

And each understandable step would be tied to the 12-month average of the conservation pool level of Cheney, one of Wichita’s two water sources.

The first stage, in effect when Cheney’s average level moved lower than 90 percent, would involve rebates and a marketing campaign to raise awareness and encourage conservation.

Mandatory restrictions would be triggered in the second stage, when the average Cheney level was lower than 70 percent, with outdoor water use limited to one day a week and the comparatively cool hours of 8 p.m. through 10 a.m. A warning for violators would be followed by $50-$100 penalties, and businesses such as golf courses and car washes would be exempt.

When the average Cheney level dipped below 50 percent, the third stage, most outdoor water use would be prohibited, with violators receiving a warning and then facing $250-$500 penalties.

In effect if Cheney’s average level dropped lower than 35 percent, the fourth stage would constitute a water emergency. Outdoor water use would be banned, even by water-dependent businesses, and all customers except major hospitals would be required to decrease their base demand indoor usage by 15 percent. After a warning, penalties of up to $500 could apply. If a customer violated the emergency limits three times, the city would install a flow restrictor on his water meter.

Clarifying what was a point of contention for the City Council in June – when the dire prediction was that Cheney could be empty by August 2015 – the plan also spells out that the city would curtail operating hours of its public fountains in the third stage and shut them down in the fourth.

With the Cheney level at 98 percent this week, compared with 58 percent in February, neither City Council members nor residents are feeling pressure to conserve or else. That’s a relief. But the plan seems a commonsense approach to readying Wichita for the next big drought, which is inevitable.

For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman