KMUW's Carla Eckels recently sat down with Ben Nelson of the city’s public works and utilities department to find out more about the state of water in Wichita.
1. What does the end of the drought mean for Wichita residents?
BN: We’re still encouraging people to use less water. It does two things really. It protects our water sources, Cheney Lake and the Equus Beds Aquifer. It’s important that we’re not drawing more out, more than we necessarily need to be. It doesn’t have the same sort of immediate sensitivity because it doesn’t look like Cheney Lake is going to go dry in the next years like we thought earlier in the year when Cheney was only about half full. But it’s still an important protection of our water supply is to use only what we need.
The other thing is our customers actually save money every month and every year when they use less water. A residential customer on average if they were able to cut their water usage by 20 percent would save almost $100 dollars in an average year. A business customer would actually save a little bit over $500 dollars a year.
2. With reduction of use, will there eventually be rate hikes?
BN: We should not have rate increases simply because of conservation during the drought. We do have annual single-digit rate increases planned in the water and sewer utilities for infrastructure renewal and replacement of our aging water mains and sewer mains, for instance. That’s unchanged, but we’re not talking about rates hikes above what we’d already planned for just because we’re able to withstand a year of this low water usage from the drought.
3. A new study forecasts that 69 percent of the water in the High Plains Aquifer in Kansas will be depleted within 50 years at current usage rates. How does this affect Wichita’s water source?
BN: One of Wichita’s two water sources is the Equus Beds aquifer. We’ve been pulling water out of there for decades and we have what’s called a senior water right, which means that we were granted the first water rights by the state of Kansas for the water that’s in the Equus beds. Since that time they’ve also appropriated water rights to lots of agricultural users and some other users up north of town. And it’s to the point where, like other parts of the Ogallala Aquifer, the Equus Beds where we pull our water out of is what’s known as over appropriated. Basically, what that means is that the annual water rights in terms of the gallons or acre feet that communities and farmers can pull out is greater than the natural recharge to the aquifer.
When we’re talking about protecting water supplies, that’s the kind of thing that we are talking about. The fact that the Equus Beds is over appropriated, anything that we don’t have to pull out of there now means it would be available in the future.
4. Wichita’s $1 million dollar water conservation rebate program launched in July. What’s the status?
BN: We’re providing rebates for clothes washers, dish washers, high efficiency toilets, smart irrigation controllers and rain barrels. It gives us small incremental increases over the next several years that really kind of help us long term with our water supply. As of Tuesday, we had approved rebates for almost 1,400 devices, about 1000 customers that participated in it and credits approved at this point had been $126,000. We’ve also provided some rebates to our wholesale customers, so basically we still have about $800,000 left in the program that will be through December 31 or if we run out of that $800,000, that would end it then but it doesn’t’ look like we’re going to exhaust the money. Single family households are eligible for actually up to five rebates and a list of eligible items and the application materials are available on a website called savewichitawater.com.
5. Labor Day weekend’s here and there will probably will be folks who want to go out on the Arkansas River with their canoes and kayaks. And recently the waters went down to allow folks to do that?
BN: You’re right. A week ago we publicized the fact that the waters reopened for recreational activities. It’s back to a normal level. It’s just a few percentage points higher than what it normally is this time of year so the river is safe again for people. And we just encourage people to have fun and enjoy it but also enjoy it safely and use all their safety equipment.
6. Is the Lincoln Street boat passage still closed?
BN: Yes, that will be closed for a indefinite period of time while we investigate some damage that occurred because of the high rains. It just means that people can’t pass from the north to the south over by Lincoln street. However, all recreational activity both north and south of Lincoln street is allowed. The river is opened up again, so we really do wish everybody a safe and happy Labor Day especially if they are out on the river this weekend.