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Drought strangles McCracken's water use




McCRACKEN -- Unrelenting drought has forced McCracken leaders to declare a water emergency, banning all outside water uses.

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McCRACKEN -- Unrelenting drought has forced McCracken leaders to declare a water emergency, banning all outside water uses.

In doing so, they also closed the city's swimming pool -- reopening it only briefly two days later to accommodate a weekly visit from children hailing from Utica, Ransom and Brownell.

The children now will have to alter their twice-a-week schedule, visiting the WaKeeney pool twice a week.

McCracken moved into a stage four drought emergency -- out of four possible stages -- Thursday, when notice of the move was published in the Rush County News.

News travels fast in this Rush County town of fewer than 200, as residents knew about the tightened restrictions since Mayor Bill Greenway and the town's three council members convened at 8:30 a.m. June 31, a Sunday.

"I've got my own well," said one woman who declined to give her name as she moved a hose to water her grass. "And I can use it for a while."

The stage four emergency is the last step in the city's arsenal for conserving water, and it will continue, Greenway said, until it rains.

McCracken has two wells, he said, one relatively shallow at only 50 feet deep.

"And I'm down to 10 feet" of water, Greenway said.

In addition to his duties as the town's mayor, he's also charged with taking care of the city's water system. He's also the McCracken fire chief and the official weather observer, all in addition to his day job as coordinator of the Midland Marketing grain elevator in McCracken.

The decision to ban outside use came at the height of the wheat harvest.

McCracken's second well, he said, is a deeper well drilled into the water-bearing Dakota formation. It's approximately 390 feet deep and still has approximately 130 feet of water in it.

The Dakota, however, is notoriously unpredictable. As it's pulled down, quality can deteriorate rapidly, in some cases making it practically unusable without extensive -- and expensive -- treatment.

Greenway said the city has been working with water well driller Albert Ree to see about drilling another Dakota well, as there's little other water readily available nearby.

"Trying to find out about water rights and its cost," he said of what the city is doing to cope with the water emergency.

Greenway said Ree told council members a domestic well tapping into the Dakota could cost as much as $75,000 to get up and running.

"It depends on how deep you have to go," he said.

Drilling a well, however, doesn't mean they'll find water.

"It's like Albert said," Greenway said, "if you drill, are you going to hit one?"

Drilling even one well would be a steep burden on the city, which has just 154 water customers.

Pulling together all of the cash it could muster, Greenway said it's likely McCracken could gather up no more than $20,000. The rest would have to be financed or covered by a grant.

That's why they've put out the call to start conserving.

He's already had questions about how long the ban will be in place.

"I said, 'You tell me when it's going to rain,' " Greenway said. "Everyone has to start conserving."

He doesn't like the idea of banning outside uses, saying he's among city residents with a garden, but Greenway also said he likes to go home from working at the elevator and take a shower.

It also was painful to close the pool, shutting down a place to go for residents and a job for his daughter, Stephanie.

"I didn't want to close it," he said, but it has a leak and a hose runs constantly to both keep the pool filled and get the filtering system operating properly.

* * *

Utica resident Debbie Hagans didn't like it either.

As the driver of the yellow school bus that ferries as many as 25 children from Utica, Arnold, Ransom and Brownell, she worried about what she'd do if the pool was closed when they arrived two days after the ban was put in place.

Most days, a second vehicle comes from Bazine with a carload of children to the pool.

The bus is part of the recreation commission operating through Western Plains USD 106 in Ransom. The bus is paid for, but children pay their own way into either McCracken or WaKeeney.

She'd heard the pool was closing but had been given assurances it would be open one more day.

"It's another small-town loss that hurts," said Hagans, who teaches social studies at Ransom during the school year. "Kids in our small towns don't have the opportunities. This gives the kids something to do, and they're so excited about it."

That day, she'd already been receiving text messages from children telling her they would be on the bus.

Hagans taught school in Utica before the NesTreLaGo USD 301 district dissolved in 2005, with most students going to Western Plains in Ransom. She started teaching in Ransom in 1991.

"I hate to see them close this pool," Hagans said as she watched children play in the water. "But it is a lot drier down here."

* * *

She also bemoans the loss of the pool in Utica, closed now for several years.

"Cost too much to operate it," said city superintendent Mark Davis, pausing as he mowed grass in front of what had been the Utica Grade School, now housing city offices, a coffee klatch, exercise room, the town cafe and an oil leasing firm.

Ransom children had been driving to Utica on a regular basis before the pool closed.

Utica isn't struggling with water needs at all, with five wells to pull from.

A spring-fed well south of town, Davis said, supplies most of the water.

"It's always had plenty of water," he said. "I've got more water right now than I can use in a year."

In fact, he has more meters than people, some of them connected simply for people to water gardens.

There's no problems with water supplies in Ransom either, according to city clerk Denice Flax.

Two of her children hop on the bus in Ransom and take the ride to McCracken and WaKeeney to swim.

And they don't have any restrictions on water use.

Ransom has six wells to supply the 295 people living there, she said.

* * *

That's all part of the dilemma for communities such as McCracken, said Kansas Water Office Director Tracy Streeter, who also serves as the director of the drought task force in Kansas.

It's the same for the likes of Ellis, Victoria, Hays and Russell, he said, each one of which has moved to tighter restrictions.

They're in a difficult spot, Streeter said, because they're not far enough west to tap into the massive Ogallala aquifer and not far enough east to rely on more abundant rainfall.

"I worry a lot about the Smoky Hill valley," Streeter said of the region. "That would be my main area of concern right now, in your neck of the woods."

Streeter said he's had conversations with officials in Ellis and Victoria.

Ellis has banned outside water use, even from private wells, and Victoria constantly is checking wells to remain aware of water levels. Russell remains in a water emergency, banning outside use of city water.

Streeter, who planned to call Greenway to see what the state can do to help McCracken's plight, said there are resources available, at least in terms of some grants and loans.

Hauling water is a last resort, but he said that's not something the National Guard could be looked at for help.

* * *

Streeter also isn't sure what can be done about one of Greenway's hopes.

"I think the best thing the state needs to do is shut the irrigators off," he said. "It would probably help our wells tremendously."

He's aware of the effect it would have on irrigators tapping into the Ogallala and even those who irrigate along the Walnut Creek in southern Ness County.