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Russell not ready to call for water

By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

RUSSELL -- Arlyn Unrein isn't ready to dismiss out of hand the idea of piggybacking on the city of Hays' request for the release of water from Cedar Bluff Reservoir.

But a decision likely won't be made until sometime after water starts flowing down the Smoky Hill River, destined for Hays wells near Schoenchen.

That way, Unrein, the director of public works for the city of Russell, can see how well the water is making its way.

"I'm going to watch it carefully and see how it goes," Unrein said Tuesday.

But the decision to call for the release of 2,000 acre-feet of water owned by the city of Russell ultimately will fall to the Russell City Council.

Tapping into Cedar Bluff is a controversial move, and Unrein's not at all willing to waste the water Russell owns in the lake.

Besides, neither he nor interim City Manager Jon Quinday have been notified of the request from Hays by the Kansas Water Office, which is expected to see if Russell wants to join in the release.

Likely, that's because Hays City Manager Toby Dougherty didn't get the request out as soon as he had hoped, mailing it Monday.

In addition to asking for the release of essentially all of the 1,262 acre-feet of water in the artificial recharge pool, Dougherty asked the Division of Water Resources to administer water rights along the Smoky Hill from Cedar Bluff to the Hays wellfield.

Because Hays generally has senior water rights, that might mean wells with junior water rights could be shut down as the growing season approaches, or into the summer if the drought continues.

For now, however, it likely would prevent any irrigator from tapping into a release from the lake to replenish soil moisture.

Unrein thinks it's best to wait for a while before calling for a release, in part because of the parched condition of the river.

Russell's also been able to use its wells along Big Creek, which started flowing again, relieving some of the strain on its Smoky Hill wells near Pfeifer.

Water started flowing in Big Creek in early November, but it was only toward the end of the month before water could be pumped from there.

Water levels in its Smoky wells, he said, remain low, but stable.

While Unrein voiced concern the water available to Hays might not make it downstream, Dougherty remains confident it will, and he's hoping it will be several hundred acre-feet of water. An acre-foot contains approximately 326,000 gallons of water.

"We just don't know how much," he said.

Hays uses approximately 2,000 acre-feet of water annually.

Engineers hired by Hays closely will monitor the progress of the water from Cedar Bluff as well, Dougherty said, and also is taking a close look at the Big Creek aquifer in and around Hays.

Water supply for the city of Hays is about evenly split between Big Creek and the Smoky, with a small portion coming from a series of wells in the Dakota aquifer, a relatively salty source of water.

While he's not proposing an immediate release, Dougherty thinks this is the best time of the year for water to flow downstream, given trees and vegetation aren't actively growing and won't tap into the water supply.

How fast water will be released also must be decided, as slower releases have proven to be excruciatingly slow to reach either wellfield.

In 2006 -- the last time water was released -- Dougherty said he stood in the river channel just west of Schoenchen for 90 minutes watching as the water started flowing toward him.

"It didn't go 30 feet in that hour and a half," he said.

In 2005, Unrein said, it took 10 days to reach the west edge of the Hays wellfield.

In 2006, it took three weeks to get to Pfeifer, and a 6-inch rain the night before it arrived sent water cascading down the river, recharging the aquifer.

The 2005 release, he said, was in December, but conditions were better than they are today.

"We didn't waste a drop over our dam," Unrein said of the flow of water stopping just as it reached the crest of a small dam near Pfeifer.

Dougherty said he's put off asking for a release as long as he could.

"Cedar Bluff is a very depleted resource as it is," he said. "So for us to come along and say we want water, it's a difficult thing."

How much a Hays release will drop levels in the lake is uncertain, although the city's consulting engineer thinks it will be approximately 4 inches.

In 2006, when 3,051 acre-feet of water was released, the level dropped by 1.12 feet. In 2005, when the water release amounted to 1,405 acre-feet, water levels in Cedar Bluff fell by about a third of a foot.