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Refreshing, but is it enough?

6/10/2014

By MIKE CORN

By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

Toby Dougherty would like nothing better than to roll back the water conservation stage in Hays.

But he's not quite ready to do that, even in the face of some relatively good rains in recent days.

"Time will tell," Hays' city manager said of whether the city will step back from its status of a water warning to the less severe water watch.

Under the water warning, outside water is restricted -- banned between 10 a.m. and 9 p.m. regardless of the source of the water.

Wells along Smoky Hill River are the most depleted, he said, but they're also the quickest to recharge.

But it's going to take some river flow before those wells start seeing any recharge.

Last week's big rains didn't produce any flow, Dougherty said.

While some areas in Ellis County received in excess of 2 inches, and eastern Trego County had reports of more than 4 inches, rain gauges along the Smoky Hill River didn't rise so high.

Rainfall close to the Smoky generally amounted to approximately an inch in the rains that fell last week.

"We had no runoff," he said. "We got pretty much no recharge out of that."

It's unlikely much came from Monday morning's rain. There were some rains in excess of 1 inch, and fields had standing water in them. But the runoff just wasn't there.

Dougherty said the city's water department planned to measure an observation well to see if any of the rain was flowing into the Smoky.

That measurement, unfortunately, didn't show any improvement. In fact, he said, the water level actually dropped slightly from Wednesday's reading -- prior to the heavy rains.

Big Creek is at the opposite spectrum from the Smoky, in that it's slow to recharge but streamflow has been good with the big rains to the west.

But the streamflow is just a small part of the recharge mechanism, Dougherty said.

Engineers, instead, have suggested the biggest amount of recharge comes from the area between Interstate 70 on the north and Big Creek on the south.

Dougherty likened it to a tilted tabletop, allowing water to flow from the north into Big Creek.

But it's the porous areas along the way that contribute the most to the aquifer, and those areas need to be saturated before water starts recharging.

"I would say right now, it's going to be a waiting game," Dougherty said of easing back water restrictions. "Essentially, we've had four years of no flow in the Smoky -- except for last year's releases from Cedar Bluff Reservoir.

"Going back to when they built the dam, we've never had four years of no flow. So this is unprecedented."

But if the rains boost levels in wells, Doughterty isn't opposed to the idea of scaling back restrictions.

"If we can discern some benefit," he said, "I have no problem going back to a watch."

He then, of course, closely would monitor the situation to see if conditions start deteriorating again.

Likely, he said, it's going to take a few years of above average rainfall to adequately replenish the city's aquifers.