Outdoor watering could soon be limited to once a week in Wichita. Here’s why

As drought conditions persist, Wichita may soon limit lawn and garden watering to one day a week and prohibit irrigation between 10 a.m. and 8 p.m.

For now, officials are asking residents to voluntarily adopt water conservation strategies so the city can stave off its first mandatory watering restrictions in more than a decade.

Under the drought ordinance adopted in 2013, stage two of the city’s drought response will automatically kick in when 12-month average water levels at Cheney Reservoir dip below 69% full. April’s average was 69%, and the reading Thursday morning was 67.14% full.

“We know that stage two is coming very quickly,” city spokesperson Megan Lovely said at a news briefing.

But the City Council is set to hear a proposal on Tuesday that would give City Hall discretion to determine when public works should begin fining people for watering their lawns and gardens more than once a week or in the heat of the day.

Since entering its stage one drought response last year, the city has implemented a number of conservation measures, including using recycled water to irrigate trees and turning off all decorative public fountains.

The amended drought ordinance would remove the automatic trigger for entering or upgrading a drought response based on Cheney Reservoir levels. Lovely said the change makes sense in light of improvements to the city’s drought resiliency since 2013, including more efficient water treatment capabilities, new systems for aquifer recharge/storage and the rehabilitation of local well fields.

“It wouldn’t be an automatic trigger because we know that we have better ability to reclaim water and respond to drought,” she said. Removing the automatic trigger would also give the city more time to get out its messaging about watering recommendations before they become mandatory.

A staff report on the agenda item for the proposed amendment indicates the city could have a financial incentive to defer water restrictions outlined in its drought response plan.

“If the current drought continues, and the [drought response plan] restrictions are enacted, significant revenue reduction will occur,” the report states. “If the City Manager deems deferral or suspension of the DRP restrictions unsuitable for the current conditions, no such restrictions or revenue reduction need occur.”

The city did not immediately provide a breakdown of what revenue streams would be negatively impacted by water restrictions. In response to a text question, Lovely dismissed the notion that removing the automatic trigger for upgrading the drought response could lead to prioritizing finances over environmental needs.

“The switch is to better account for the drought response mechanisms we have in place since the ordinance was enacted,” Lovely said.

How would watering restrictions be enforced?

Food-producing gardens would be exempt from watering restrictions, as long as they are watered by hand or drip irrigation instead of an automatic sprinkler system. Residents who use well water to irrigate their lawns and flower gardens would also be exempt.

The drought ordinance splits the city into quadrants and specifies which city water customers can water when under stage two.

  • Customers northwest of the Central and Broadway intersection may use outdoor water on Mondays

  • Customers northeast of Central and Broadway may use outdoor water on Tuesdays

  • Customers southwest of Central and Broadway may use outdoor water on Wednesdays

  • Customers southeast of Central and Broadway may use outdoor water on Thursdays

Watering would have to be done in the evening or the early morning. The ordinance does not restrict the use of water outdoors for other purposes, including filling private pools.

Don Henry, assistant public works director, explained that if mandatory restrictions go into effect, there will be a sliding schedule of penalties for property owners found to be in violation.

“There would be one get out of jail free card with a warning. First violation would be a warning,” Henry said.

A second violation would result in a $50 fine, and any violation beyond that would come with a $100 penalty.

“Our integrated water metering and billing system provides us the opportunity to monitor usage, so we can look at each individual account and tell when people are irrigating,” Henry said.

The department would compare customers’ water usage to their wintertime base demands and previous years’ watering seasons.

“We can look at what they’ve done typically through the summer, what they did last month, what they did this month — and it’s pretty easy to tell because there is a trend, an uptick in usage through the irrigation season,” Henry said.

“When you see those spikes, we can actually look at hourly usage and see when the watering occurs, too.”

Mayor Lily Wu said she hopes Wichitans will adhere to once-weekly watering recommendations before they become obligatory.

“The Libertarian in me does not believe in more rules, but I really want people to [of their own] free will want to help this community with drought reduction measures,” Wu said.

Other recommended conservation measures include taking shorter showers and turning off the faucet while brushing teeth.

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