Wichita water proposal cause for concern, monitoring

The Equus Beds are one of south central Kansas’s jewels when it comes to natural resources.

The deep, clean aquifer provides water to nearly all people in Harvey County. It has a recharge rate faster than the Ogallalah Aquifer of western Kansas, making it a long-term and sustainable option to provide drinking water to cities, well water to rural households and irrigation water to farms.

The state has an office of groundwater management to oversee the aquifer.

Considering the aquifer’s importance, any time there’s a suggested change in regulations on how it can be used, people’s ears should prick up.

It’s hard for people to live or make a living without access to clean, available and affordable water. That’s something that affects all of us.

The City of Wichita is proposing a change to how the Equus Beds can be used.

Wichita has a 55-square-mile well field in Harvey and Sedgwick Counties, which it uses to draw water to sate its thirst.

Regulatory limits prevent Wichita from drawing water credits from the Equus Beds when they are 36 feet below the surface on average or less than 88 percent full. Wichita now wants the ability to draw on the aquifer all the way down to 51 feet below the surface.

It’s hard to see how such a move would benefit anyone in Harvey County, which has hundreds of domestic and agricultural wells that could be dried up during a drought following such a draw down.

In 1993, the City of Wichita began a program to recharge the aquifer, then sitting at an 88 percent capacity. It started treating water from the Little Arkansas in a facility in Harvey County and injecting that water into the Equus Beds. The city then earned a credit for the water it injected into the Equus Beds.

It could later pull an equal amount of water out of the Equus Beds on top of the 40,000 acre feet of water rights the city has on the beds.

For context, according to officials, Wichita uses about 61,000 acre feet of water annually, with part coming from the Equus Beds and part coming from Cheney Lake.

The program makes sense and represents good planning and stewardship of a shared resource. Wichita keeps the Equus Beds at a high level—they’re currently at 98 to 99 percent capacity—and in turn, can take extra water out of it. When the level drops below the 1993 level the city started with, it can no longer draw water, even if it has credits. That keeps from draining the Equus Beds further down, impacting shallow wells and additional depletion of the resource. The Equus Beds are still 88 percent full at the limit.

Now it wants to go 15 feet below that level to help deal with times of extreme drought. That could create a number of issues.

Shallow wells could dry up in the area of Wichita’s draw downs. That means farmers and county residents who have, for decades, relied on the water directly underneath their land might no longer have water, thanks to their thirsty municipal neighbor. That doesn’t seem fair or right. If these changes would become a reality, there should be a plan for compensating people whose wells dry up.

What seems to be the good news out of this is that even though cities like Newton rely on the Equus Beds, they’re out of the Wichita well field.

Tim Boese, manager of Groundwater Management District 2, said groundwater moves slowly and city wells shouldn’t be impacted. Still, with Newton relying on the beds, it’s worthwhile for all of us to keep an eye on any actions with the beds.

Such draw downs during drought could also create areas of negative pressure in the aquifer.

Previously, Wichita hoped that injecting water into the aquifer would create a positive pressure that would help prevent the Burrton Plume, a plume of salt water caused by oil brine pollution near Burrton in the first half of the 20th Century, from continuing to move further south and east into the aquifer.

Now, the opinion is that the recharge project won’t stop the plume. However, negative pressure might speed up how fast it moves. That plume makes irrigating and domestic usage impossible without treatment. The more it spreads, the more wells it makes worthless.

Thirdly, Wichita hopes to create a way for it to build up additional recharge credits once the Equus Beds are full of water. They wish to draw water from the Little Arkansas, treat it and feed it to city residents. Since those residents aren’t pulling from the Equus Beds, the city would get a credit. This could create an issue where the city owns more credits on the Equus Beds than what it put in and possibly hurt or limit other users of the aquifer.

Boese’s groundwater management group will study and give a recommendation on the proposal. There should be a public hearing involving it as well as a public forum regarding the changes.

Those dates have yet to be announced. But if any of this concerns you, please read the article we did on the proposed change, put the change on your radar and share this with any rural friends or family you know in the southwest section of the county who could be impacted.

We’ll publish when and where such meetings are going on when we hear about them. We want to wait to see how the groundwater management district feels about the change before sounding the alarm. Still, this is something that needs to be tracked and understood sooner than later as to give residents a chance to make their voices heard.

We understand Wichita wishes to plan for the future. Harvey County needs to protect its own.