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Wichita considers tougher water use regulations

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) -- Wichita leaders are exploring ways the city might better conserve its drought-threatened water supply, including more than doubling the summer rates charged to pool owners and other heavy outdoor water users.

City Council members were told Tuesday that Cheney Reservoir, which provides 60 percent of the city's water, could dry up by mid-2015 if the drought continues, making it impossible for the city to meet water demand, The Wichita Eagle reported (http://bit.ly/WqUuT0 ).

Council members could decide by next week what to do about water usage until the drought ends.

Most of the suggested conservation approaches have centered on limiting lawn watering and outdoor recreational water usage, with the hopes of lowering Wichita's summer water usage by at least half. One proposal would increase rates by 113 percent for some users who exceed their average winter water usage. In such a scenario, someone who uses 22,500 gallons of water a month in the summer would have a bill increase from $151 to $321.59, according to Alan King, the city's public works director.

Commercial users would not be restricted but they still could pay higher costs, King said.

The city currently doesn't plan to raise water rates for households that use little water outdoors, unless reduced water use results in large shortfalls in the water department's projected revenue.

Other recommendations include an educational campaign and $5 million in improvements for the city's Equus Beds well field near Halstead.

However, if the city chooses the Equus Beds project, it would use money from $6.5 million in additional water revenue generated last summer during the drought, ending plans to replace and repair water and sewer lines.

"We would have money to do repair work, but not the money to emphasize replacements that we've been talking about the last 12 to 18 months," City Manager Robert Layton said. "We have infrastructure problems. What we are talking to you about today are the best of bad options."

Several long-term answers to the water shortage also were discussed, including a possible deal to pipe water from El Dorado Reservoir, which has 25 years of adequate water supply. Another option is a five-year project to build a desalinization plant to process groundwater for use. The plant would cost $200 million, but it could double the amount of water available to the city.

Council member Jeff Longwell said the rate hikes were "punitive pricing," and unnecessary when the city has an extra $6 million to $9 million every summer in water revenues from the drought and has not fully explored ways to improve its water supply.

Vice Mayor Janet Miller said she wants to pursue conservation measures.

"I guess I would have concern about any strategy we choose if we limit ourselves to only new supplies of water, and don't take a serious look at ways to encourage people to reduce usage and conserve water," Miller said.