By MIKE CORN
Hays isn't in imminent danger of running out of water, city officials Wednesday sought to assure the small group of people attending the first of what likely will be several town hall meetings to talk about current and future water supplies.
"It's not time to panic," Hays City Manager Toby Dougherty said of the city's status. "We've got plenty of water to ride our way through a drought."
And if it comes to it, he said, the city still has rights to nearly 163 million gallons of water in the Dakota Aquifer, and steps quickly could be taken to treat the water to make sure it's suitable for drinking.
"We will never run out of drinking water," Commissioner Henry Schwaller IV said. "We have resources for that."
The assurances came toward the end of what was an 80-minute discussion on the city's decision to move into the water warning phase of its conservation plan.
It also was the chance to start talking about the city's decision to identify the city-owned R9 Ranch in Edwards County as the most feasible source of a long-term water solution.
But Wednesday's town hall meeting didn't attract a big crowd, drawing only approximately 40 people.
That's about half the number of people who turned out Monday for a morning meeting to discuss a state initiative on what water resources should look like in 50 years.
Ironically, one person at Monday's meeting said it should have been conducted in the evening so more people would be able to attend.
The discussion about the status of water in Hays came about as a result of a question following on the heels of assurances big sums of money won't be spent until city officials are assured water from the ranch will be available.
"We're still in the situation of what do we do now," a member of the audience said.
He voiced concern the city might focus solely on the ranch as a long-term source of water and ultimately determine that won't be the case. Then what, he asked.
"We're not going to put all our money on this right now," Schwaller said. "There are other resources. But this is the best option we've got now."
"The hope is that potentially it could be the long-term solution for an adequate supply of water," Hays Mayor Kent Steward said.
Much of the discussion, including questions, had more to do with the outside water use.
Doughtery commended the city and its residents for taking the lead in the state on conservation.
Hays residents on average, he said, uses 95 gallons of water per person every day. State residents use an average of 130 gallons, while the regional average is 155 gallons.
"We manage our resources very well," he said. "We've been giving shower heads away for 20 years."
But the drought has prevented the city's two main sources of water -- Big Creek and the Smoky Hill River -- from recharging.
"Right now, we are pulling 2,100 acre feet (of water) out of those sources, and we are mining that water," Dougherty said. "It is not sustainable."
That's why the city is looking at the possibility of drawing water more than 70 miles from the R9 Ranch.
Initial projections suggest it could cost approximately $65 million to deliver the water to Hays.
Using money in the city's water fund and financing the rest ultimately could result in a 40-percent increase in water rates, he said, "if we do it now."
But actually getting that water is still well into the future.
Optimistic estimates suggest the process could be completed in three to five years. If there are protests, and city officials said it's likely there will be, that could be extended well beyond that time frame.
Dougherty said the city first will have to clear a number of regulatory barriers.
"This could be the solution that ends the public discourse about water in Hays," he said of the prospects for water from the Kinsley area.
But in the meantime, Dougherty said, "we're not in danger of running out of water."