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Ellis trying to identify new water supply




ELLIS -- Nearly every other week, Matthew Windholz measures the depth to water in each of the eight wells used by the city of Ellis.

"They drop every single time," Ellis City Clerk Amy Burton told city council members who gathered for a special meeting last week to discuss the prospects of looking for another source of water.

The council and their water advisory committee members learned their options were limited. And it's likely to be expensive, depending on where the water ultimately is found.

Ellis will have to look several miles outside the city limits, as well as outside the Big Creek alluvium, where they now take water, Division of Water Resources acting water commissioner Kelly Stewart said.

That's because Big Creek is closed to further appropriations, taking it off the table as far as taking more water from it.

Instead, Stewart suggested Ellis look to the northwest, somewhere between the Saline River and Big Creek, perhaps tapping into the Ogallala Aquifer.

It's all something of a preliminary matter, driven by the continuing drought and the resulting decline in water levels in city wells, half of which pump on an alternating basis to relieve some of the pressure.

While Burton said she doesn't think the city is in imminent danger of its wells coming up dry, the water levels continue to decline.

While one well has seen water levels rise, the other seven have dropped anywhere from 2 inches to 14 inches during the course of 2013. There's been a steady decline in water levels over the long-term in at least five wells, ranging from nearly 5 feet to more than 10 feet during the past 20 years.

Those declining water levels prompted the Ellis City Council to name a water advisory committee -- the driving force behind last week's special meeting to see what the city's options might be on finding a new source of supply.

Ellis is actually awash in water rights, but there's no way they can pump what they're allowed from Big Creek.

Since 1977, Ellis has had the right to pull 567 acre-feet of water -- nearly 185 million gallons -- from Big Creek. Instead, the city used 73 million gallons of water last year, less than half what it's allowed.

As a result, Ellis remains in the strictest phase of water conservation, prohibiting outside water use.

"You need to get away from the alluvium," Stewart told council members at the outset of last week's meeting.

That's when he suggested looking for water along what essentially would be the dividing line between Big Creek and the Saline River to the north.

"The only other option is the Ogallala Aquifer," he said, either from a new well or buying an existing water right.

It's unlikely, he said, the state would be willing to boost the amount of the water right held by Ellis, but it might allow it to utilize another source of water as part of its existing water right.

Council members also expressed the possibility of tying into the pipeline owned by Trego County Rural Water District No. 2, either to transport water or to siphon off some as a customer of the district.

Part of the city's problem, Burton said, is there's no way to tell how much water it has in the Big Creek alluvium.

They haven't undertaken extensive and expensive water modeling projects to do that.

The cost of finding another source of water, Burton said, was the driving force behind the city's decision not to turn back its share of a county sales tax.

"Right now, we're so early we don't know how much it's going to cost," she said.

The city's share of the countywide sales tax is expected to be approximately $150,000 annually.