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Hays, Russell eye Cedar Bluff water

8/25/2012

By MIKE CORN

By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

The drought-stricken communities of Hays and Russell soon could ask for water from Cedar Bluff Reservoir even though relatively ample rains have fallen in recent days.

It's just that dry, and little of the sorely needed moisture has reached the cities' wellfields along the Smoky Hill River, near Schoenchen and Pfeifer. Big Creek west of Hays might be the exception, with substantial rains falling in the area, rewetting what had become little more than a dry creek bed.

Exactly how much effect recent rains have had won't be known until water well measurements are taken this week. But as of Saturday, U.S. Geological Survey monitoring wells in the Hays wellfield don't show much sign of improvement, with levels increasing only slightly.

Without replenishing wellfields, Hays and Russell could move ahead with plans to call for Cedar Bluff water. Or they could delay the release, hoping for more rain.

Any release, however, won't be taking place until sometime after the Labor Day holiday.

The release would be an obvious concession to what already is a highly contentious issue, especially coming just as a holiday is approaching -- a peak time for visitation to the lake.

The consensus to call for a release was apparently reached last week during a conference call between Hays and Russell officials and the Kansas Water Office.

"That's what the group talked about if things didn't change," KWO Director Tracy Streeter said Thursday of fast approaching the call for a water release.

Sept. 5 is the target date for a release, if conditions don't change dramatically. The rains might be delay a release.

Hays City Manager Toby Dougherty said "Russell indicated there would be a high likelihood of a release after the Labor Day holiday."

When that request is made, Dougherty said Hays will make a similar request.

Russell has rights to 2,000 acre-feet of water from the lake and can ask for that anytime. Hays lacks any rights to water in the lake but can request a release from a KWO-owned pool of water set aside for artificial recharge.

Combined, there's currently about 3,300 acre-feet of water available for release into the Smoky Hill River, an amount nearly identical to what was released under a similar scenario in 2006. The water's release and evaporation then lowered the water level in the lake by 1.12 feet. Cedar Bluff already is approximately 6 feet lower than when water was released before.

"They've been asking us to project when we might need it," Russell City Manager Ralph Wise said of state and federal officials. "At this point, we haven't called for a release."

He also didn't broach the issue of requesting a release from Cedar Buff at Tuesday's city council meeting, but public works director Arlyn Unrein detailed the sour conditions facing Russell water wells.

But Unrein said they're better now than in 2006.

"I think we ought to go to stage 4 now," Councilman Larry Daugherty said at a Russell City Council meeting Tuesday, later making a motion to do just that.

"Obviously, we've got all kinds of water," he said when no one stepped up to second his motion.

While Russell can call for release of the water it owns in Cedar Bluff anytime, there are specific triggers that have to be met before Hays can ask for a release.

Dougherty said those triggers have been met for some time already.

"Russell and Hays both know any release out of Cedar Bluff is controversial," Doughterty said. "If you're going to do it, at least wait until after the big holiday weekend."

The requests, he said, likely will be made in tandem to increase the chances of the water making it to both the Hays and Russell wellfields, but no farther so as not to waste any water.

But they're also wanting to ensure the water makes it downstream, without too much of it being lost to trees and vegetation along the way.

"We're leaning toward letting the water out quite rapidly," Dougherty said.

To do that, they're looking at larger releases initially, to get the water charging downstream.

In 2006, the release was a relatively slow 50 cubic feet per second -- approximately 4.3 million gallons a day. But it took an interminably long time to reach Russell's wellfield near Pfeifer.

This time, Doughtery said, it's possible the releases might start at 200 CFS, or approximately 17 million gallons a day.

"You don't want to overshoot the wellfield," he said.

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Water use in Hays has declined along with temperatures, but conditions haven't improved along Big Creek, which supplies much of the city's water.

"They're low, but they're hanging in there," Doughtery said of the wells along the Smoky Hill River. "We're probably in worse shape in Big Creek."

The Big Creek aquifer is slower to recharge, he said.

Because water use has declined, there's no immediate plans for additional conservation in Hays.

"The cool weather helped cut back on irrigation," Dougherty said of outside watering. "The consumption is going down. We're back to normal consumption levels."

That's the same with Russell, where water use now is down to approximately 800,000 gallons a day, Wise told council members, down from million-gallon days when temperatures were at their hottest.