By Michael Buhler
Last month’s snow might have put a dent in the drought, but it did not end it. And now there is talk that the worst might be yet to come.
Last week, the city of Wichita projected that Cheney Lake, the source of more than half of the city’s water, could go dry in the summer of 2015 if the drought continues at the same level of intensity.
“That was one of the projections of what could happen if the conditions persist as they are right now,” Steve Adams, an environmental scientist with the Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, said.
“What was presented at the meeting last week is that if the water supply and demand remains what they are right now, the pool will essentially be depleted sometime in 2015.” Adams added that the projection was not the projection of the KDWPT.
One thing that is certain is that when it comes to the weather, nothing is certain.
“In a time like this, you never know how long a drought is going to last,” Adams said. “Things could change. Unfortunately, all of the long-range projections I’ve seen from NOAA and other entities seem to suggest the drought will continue much as it did last year.”
Wichita city officials showed Gov. Sam Brownback’s Drought Response Team those projections, prompting Brownback to call for Kansans to conserve water.
According to Ben Nelson, strategic services manager for public work and utilities with the city of Wichita, said that the city has come up with plans to reduce demand for water in the city and to increase water supply in an effort to stave off a water shortage and prolong the water supply from the lake.
“We actually were really pleased to have the chance to work with Gov. Brownback and the Kansas Water office,” Nelson said. “He had some good questions about the financial and water usage impacts to our customers as well as about information on our long-term water planning efforts. The biggest thing that came out of the meeting is that he was pleased with our planning strategies and he would like to use the Wichita model in other communities throughout the state.”
Lowering demand for water in Wichita would include voluntary restrictions on indoor and outdoor water usage, and if things got bad enough, a mandatory reduction – or outright ban – on outdoor water usage.
One way that the city could increase the amount of water available to Wichita is a desalinization plant that would enable the city to use deeper ground water. However, the plant’s opening would be several years away.
“One major start for increasing supply right now is drilling wells deeper in our existing fields,” Nelson said. “That should extend our supply for another 22 months.”
However, not everyone is convinced that the situation with Cheney Lake is as bad as Wichita fears it could be, among them Patrick Preisser, president of the Cheney Lake Association. He described the projection of Cheney Lake going dry in 2015 as a “worst-case scenario.”
“That’s kind of a big stretch,” Preisser said of the city’s projection. “That’s pretty unlikely, I think. But you never know. Texas has had a four- or five-year drought before. With normal rainfall, that lake could be full again in a couple of years.”
Ryan Stucky, the manager of Cheney State Park, also believes things might not be as bad as feared.
“I think what they’re saying is if you took the total rainfall and what has happened to Cheney Lake, and compared to what could happen in the future that the lake could go dry,” Stucky said. However, he added that the projection was based on the amount of rain in Wichita and not the amount of rain in the lake’s watershed, which extends to the north and west of the lake.
Stucky said that one big rain could make a major difference in the situation at the lake.
“We’ve had several rains that have raised the lake 3 1/2 feet in one night,” Stucky said. “It’s a spread-out lake and it’s not deep.”
However, the water levels at the lake are low enough that the lake’s boat ramps are all but closed.
“I went out two or three weeks ago in my kayak, and the water was two feet deep,” Preisser said. “You could probably put a small aluminum boat with a tiller out on it, but nothing else would work on it.”
One thing that the drought has done is encourage Wichita residents to dig more wells and not rely on the city water’s supply.
“I’ve actually talked to people whose water rates are $400 a month,” Preisser said, “and they’re seriously thinking about having a well dug.”
John Weninger from Weninger Drilling in Maize has seen an increase in business with the drought.
“There has been an influx in well demand in the last two years,” Weninger said, “mainly last year and primarily in Wichita. Though we’re busy, it’s not quite as good as it was during the housing boom here 7-8 years ago.”
Weninger also believes that the additional wells have helped the water situation in the city of Wichita because water coming out of the wells is not coming out of Cheney Lake.
“One of the reasons that Cheney Lake isn’t dry right now is because of the people who have water wells and are not using the city water,” Weninger said. “The additional wells have actually helped Cheney Lake.”