Scorching reality settled over Salina during the summer of 2006 when it became clear that an essential resource -- water -- was in finite and shrinking supply.
The Smoky Hill River, which has infused this economy with the necessary liquid for generations, nearly went dry, and Salina's city wells saw a big dip in water levels. Water use was restricted as folks hoped for rain that would recharge aquifers and fill up Kanopolis Reservoir, which dumps into the Smoky.
Martha Tasker, Salina utilities director, got busy in a hurry, figuring out ways to ensure a more stable supply for the next half-century.
"It has been a mission for me," she said. "When the river goes dry, that's a really bad thing, and I take it pretty seriously."
Roughly a year later, heavy spring rains deluged Salina, and creeks and rivers spilled from their banks. But by then, Tasker and others were looking decades ahead, mapping plans to make sure there would be water to count on as Salina grows. That "scary year" in 2006 has kept her, along with officials in neighboring cities, focused.
After two straight years with rainfall more than a foot below normal and near-record summer temperatures, water is once again big news for the masses. But water never has drifted from the attention of city water gurus.
And if it goes dry?
If the Smoky goes dry, Salina's conservation plan would place the city in an emergency, and outdoor watering would be banned. The utilities department has proposed regulating private domestic wells within the city limits, which is permitted by the Kansas Division of Water Resources, Tasker said. Salina's downtown well field is capable of pumping as much as 10 million gallons of water a day.
Salina is working on a $3.2 million project to redrill four wells downtown that would add 3 million gallons of daily capacity -- 13 million total -- Tasker said. Work begins later this year.
A more long-range plan is a project exceeding $20 million to improve the south well field, adding 5 million gallons a day to the city's capacity, she said, and it can be expanded to 7.5 million gallons. That project, estimated to begin in 2020, would include an additional water treatment plant.
The next 50 years Based on a raw water supply study that wrapped up in 2010, Tasker said Salina has a plan that will meet water needs for 50 years.
Based on current trends, the city's population will be at 65,000 in 2060, she said.
"We have options looking forward, so we're not so much at the mercy of the Smoky Hill River," Tasker said.
Water, or the lack of it, can truly stunt growth, said Dennis Lauver, president and CEO of the Salina Area Chamber of Commerce. Water and industry It's natural for those of us nestled in a farm-rich region to think of adding value to farm commodities, he said, such as turning wheat into pasta or breakfast cereal before shipping it out of Salina, or turning corn or milo into ethanol.
"I've asked myself several times what can be done. Any answer to that question involves a lot of water," Lauver said.
While he would never walk away from an opportunity to add "quality jobs and significant capital investment," Lauver said, "We've pursued them cautiously."
Tough in Ellsworth Adam Larsen, Ellsworth utilities superintendent, said water problems in Ellsworth have been "tough."
"We've been on water restrictions since July of last year," said.
"Everybody in the state has some sort of issue with water," he said. "We are not allowing any outdoor watering, and that's not going to change in the foreseeable future." The Ellsworth City Council decides whether to ease restrictions, Larsen said.
Of the nearly 2.4 billion gallons of water Salina uses every year, half comes from wells and the rest is pulled from the river. Ellsworth has five wells along the Smoky Hill River that are not subject to state limits when the river drops below the minimum desired streamflow. Two other wells are affected by MDS, meaning the city could be ordered to shut them off.
Ellsworth, population 3,120, has experienced a growth spurt in the past couple of years, Larsen said, particularly with the opening of several new businesses. The city is in the early stages of drilling another well downstream from the gauge where streamflow is measured.
"If you go downstream, you're not affected by MDS," he said. "We're in contact with a hydrologist to get the ball moving on this."
Could close the doors?
The city of Russell, population nearly 4,500, since last summer has been in a water conservation plan that calls for cuts on consumption and no new user permits issued, said Arlyn Unrein, public works director. The White Energy ethanol plant informed the Russell City Council last month that further cuts could cause the employer to close its doors.
"They have been asked to reduce (consumption), and they have done more than that," Unrein said. "One of the managers out there said they can't cut any more and stay in business. It takes a certain amount."
Russell gets its water from nine wells near Pfeifer, 22 miles southwest of town. Those wells pull water from the alluvial aquifer under the Smoky Hill River, and the city pumps surface water from Big Creek, eight miles southwest.
"It's a flowing stream sometimes," Unrein said. But Big Creek went dry last summer. "That caused some sleepless nights," he said.
When trees go dormant When the trees go dormant in the fall, Unrein said, the creek comes back to life.
"The levels are down in both the stream and the wells, but they're somewhat stable," he said. "We need moisture, a lot of moisture, and snow's the best way."
The Russell area received roughly a foot of snow in late February, but another dry summer with extreme heat is predicted.
"I see Big Creek going dry again this summer and we'll be using our wells to a much greater extent," Unrein said. "I think things will really get tight."
Looking for more water The city of Russell may resort to added restrictions, he said, such as a surcharge for monthly water use above the averages of December through February. Russell is also shopping for new water sources, among them buying water from irrigators to the west of the city's well field.
"It's not the end-all solution to our problems, but it will help," Unrein said. "We're waiting on the Division of Water Resources to give us a permit."
Salinans are conserving One important aspect to Salina's efforts is an effort by citizens to conserve, Tasker said. The city's peak demand has reduced from highs at 14 million gallons in 2002 to only a few peaks last summer that exceeded 10 million gallons.
"What we're seeing is a more conscientious use of lawn irrigation water and industries putting water conservation plans in place at their facilities," Tasker said.
For example, at Tony's Pizza -- Schwan's Global Supply Chain -- she said, "Water is as valuable of a commodity as cheese. It's a product they have to pay for, and they're looking to be as efficient as possible. We applaud them for that."
-- Reporter Tim Unruh can be reached at 822-1419 or by email at email@example.com.