Despite most of northwest Kansas currently being classified “abnormally dry” by the U.S. Drought Monitor, City of Hays officials say the outlook is positive for the city’s water supply.

A seasonal drought outlook released Thursday by the NOAA Climate Prediction Center projects drought removal is likely for much of the region — including Ellis County.

The city’s wells are operating at normal water levels, and the city’s water usage has been declining overall, said Johnny O’ Connor, director of water resources, during Thursday’s Hays City Commission meeting.

“We have data that goes all the way back to 2002. We can see through our water conservation efforts over these years that our water usage is actually starting to go down,” he said. “We’re actually doing really good in our water usage.”

Hays residents use approximately 700 million gallons each year, according to city data. The city’s rolling average for water use is 656 million gallons annually. The goal is to have water loss of no more than 10 percent each year, O’Connor said.

City staff also have implemented new strategies to more accurately gauge the condition of public wells in both the Smoky Hill and Big Creek wellfields.

The assessment of city wellfields used to be based entirely on readings at only one well in the middle of the Smoky Hill wellfield. The city worked with an engineering company to create an aquifer health index that pulls more detailed data from both wellfields and also accounts for other factors, such as drought conditions and climate predictions.

“This incorporates our whole water situation and not just a snippet of it,” he said.

Transducers were placed on additional wells, including several in the Big Creek wellfield, to constantly measure water levels. The aquifer health index also considers factors such as current conditions from the U.S. Drought Monitor and future projections.

The data provides a more comprehensive look at the city’s water levels, and also has helped officials gain a better understanding of the Big Creek wellfield, which had been somewhat misunderstood, O’Connor said.

“It was perceived in the past that (Big Creek) was slow, it was cumbersome, it didn’t recharge quickly, and it was a little bit more delicate than the Smoky Hill,” he said. “We’re finding through the aquifer health index that Big Creek is very similar to the Smoky Hill.”

The Smoky Hill aquifer is running approximately 70 percent full, while Big Creek is at 80-percent capacity.

The city set out to improve its data collection in 2015, and its efforts have gained statewide attention.

“We are the City of Hays. We don’t wait for anybody to take the initiative and actually lead the way,” O’Connor said. “We actually have been working with the (Division of Water Resources) and the Kansas Water Office, because we are the trendsetters. They are ecstatic that we developed this and they would actually like to implement this in other areas.”

The city’s water conservation website now features updates of the city’s water status for the public’s information. It can be found online at haysusa.com and is updated weekly.