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Cities struggle to shore up water concerns





RUSSELL -- By a split vote, the Russell City Council agreed to let its largest water user pull as much water as it needs from alternative sources when the city declares a water emergency.

But it turned aside a request to join with Hays in a research project, showing signs of a straining relationship between Hays and Russell.

Because of restrictions imposed by Russell when it entered the third phase of its water conservation plan, White Energy's ethanol-production facility has been forced to operate at approximately two-thirds of its capacity, according to manager Regis Weiss.

He pleaded with the council in late July to consider all they've done to conserve water since Russell last was forced into implementing strict water conservation in 2006.

Russell is in the third stage of a four-stage water conservation plan since early July, restricting -- but not eliminating -- outside water use.

At Tuesday's Russell City Council meeting, Weiss said Post Rock Rural Water District has put in place some improvements to help boost the amount of water it can supply.

When rains return and Russell is able to back out of water restrictions, White will be limited to no more than 250,000 gallons of water from outside sources.

Russell rejected an offer from the state and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to pay for most of a study to see what the effect of constructing small dams on the Smoky Hill River would have on slowing and capturing water.

In doing so, however, the council expressed concerns about its relations with Hays.

Russell and Hays would pay for a fourth of the project, with Russell picking up approximately 45 percent of the total, or nearly $11,250.

"The Corps wants to do this, but they won't release the Lake Wilson report?" Councilman Jim Cross wanted to know.

Russell City Manager Ralph Wise responded with a simple yes.

The report, which was supposed to have been released last fall, was expected to bring together everything that was studied as far as setting aside water in Lake Wilson for the cities of Russell and Hays.

Funding for the project fell victim to the federal budget battle, but there was supposed to be enough money left to bring together everything already studied.

The Corps said the report is undergoing management review, although they couldn't provide a timetable for its release.

Councilman Chuck Bean voiced concern about if Hays -- if the dams are constructed -- would let water pass downstream to Russell's wellfield at Pfeifer.

"We can't even rely on them to release effluent water into Big Creek," he said.

Rather than release water from the city wastewater treatment plant, Hays has been pumping treated water onto ballfields or to a holding pond at Fort Hays Municipal Golf Course.

As a result, Big Creek essentially has gone dry. Russell has had to forego using its Big Creek wells, relying entirely on wells in the Smoky. Cattlemen along Big Creek also have struggled to find water, relying instead on wells.

"There's no way Hays is going to play fair anyway," said Councilwoman Michelle Wagner.

"I think we should let the state know we are adamantly opposed to any dam on the Smoky Hill River," Bean said.