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Water talk flows through commission

By DAWNE LEIKER

dleiker@dailynews.net

When Hays city commissioners met in regular session Thursday, water became a recurring theme throughout the evening.

Bernie Kitten, city of Hays utilities director, updated commissioners on the progress of water released March 4 from the artificial recharge storage pool in Cedar Bluff Reservoir. According to preliminary conclusions of engineering firm Burns & McDonnell, groundwater level monitoring sites show the majority of the Smoky Hill River wellfield has seen a rise in groundwater levels in the range of 1 to 7 feet, with an average increase of 3.5 feet.

Following Kitten's presentation, Commissioner Henry Schwaller IV suggested the city increase its efforts to educate Hays residents on the city's water options, including R9 Ranch in Edwards County.

"We have been working toward that, but I think that we should be more public about that effort and again sharpen our pencils and get an accurate estimate because I don't think people would be too excited about it, if indeed their water bills are three to four times higher," he said. "It's important that we talk about that and all the other alternatives going north, south, west, east.

"All those have been ruled out, because there's not a significant amount of water for purchase."

The Cedar Bluff release, Schwaller said, was done "very carefully, cautiously" by the city, and the city did not act as "big bullies" in asking for the release -- as some residents' emails to commissioners suggested.

"The city has had a very legal ability since the 2004 operations agreement was signed with the state, and this is the first time (a release) has ever been asked for by the city," City Manager Toby Dougherty said. "If anybody claims that we're shooting from the hip and we're being big bullies and asking for this water, that's not the case.

"We took this very seriously."

Dougherty said the city has two viable water options: R9 Ranch and the unregulated aquifer Cedar Hills Dakota.

However, tapping into the Cedar Hills aquifer would entail the city setting up a portable reverse osmosis or electrodialysis reversal unit due to poor water quality.

"To look at those aquifers as a water source, you're going to have to look at scrapping your current treatment methods," Dougherty said. "Therefore, the water is here, but the cost increase on your operation and maintenance side and capital investments go up."

In reaction to surrounding city's water restrictions, Hays residents are concerned about what city water watch, warning and emergency stages entail, Commissioner Ron Mellick told Dougherty. He asked city staff to bring the commission an outline of its water plans and also an update on what the city plans to do in regard to its own water conservation.

"I think we need to explain that to our citizens," Mellick said. "I think that will help alleviate a lot of rumors that are circling about town."

Dougherty said city staff has revised the city's emergency operation plan and will present it to commissioners in the next few weeks.

To conserve water, the city, he said, has cut back significantly in watering its two irrigated parks; is eliminating many of its annual plantings that require fresh water; and plans to convert Pratt Optimist soccer fields and Glassman ballfields to turf-type Bermuda grass.

In other business, commissioners:

* Voted 5-0 to join the League of Kansas Municipalities for $9,351 and accept a proposal from KMIT for the pro-rated amount of $123,626 for worker's compensation coverage.

* Approved purchase of a Lastec 3300 mower for $34,689 for the Fort Hays Municipal Golf Course.

* Voted 4-1 to accept the low bid of $34,000 from Karst Construction for renovation of the city hall public restrooms. Schwaller voted against the motion.

* Approved the sixth addendum to an employment agreement with Dougherty for a 3-percent wage increase, making his annual salary $116,700. All city employees received a 3-percent increase in January.

* Passed a city commission policy for funding recognition.