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Rains fail to solve water crisis

8/19/2013

By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

Hays and Russell water concerns aren't so easy to wash away.

That's why Hays City Manager Toby Dougherty and Russell public works supervisor Arlyn Unrein aren't intent on backing away from concerns about their respective community's water supplies.

They're holding firm even though rain -- in some instances, heavy rain -- has fallen. It's just that not all of it has fallen in the right spot.

In Russell's case, heavy rains fell in northern Rush County, sending water cascading down Timber Creek and into the Smoky Hill River.

Despite water in the river, held there by a low-water dam just north of Pfeifer, Russell's wells aren't recharging as fast as Unrein would like.

He's not exactly sure why that is.

"It went through pretty fast," he said of much of the water.

Still, Unrein said, Russell's Smoky Hill River wells are in the best shape they've been this year, even considering the release of water from Cedar Bluff Reservoir in March.

And while water continues flowing down Big Creek, letting Russell capture water, there's not an abundance of water.

It's a different scenario facing Hays, which also draws its water from both Big Creek and the Smoky Hill.

"Big Creek has rebounded slightly," Dougherty said. "Big Creek is very slow to recharge."

And that's where the heaviest rains fell, along the Big Creek corridor, both in Hays and to the west.

"We are in the realm of normal in Big Creek," Dougherty said, "but it's barely normal."

The rains, which sent water rushing over the dam in Frontier Park, boosted water levels by only 3 inches.

Rains and runoff boosted the water level in a city observation well along the Smoky approximately a third of a foot higher, but that was just in recent days -- not when the heavy rains were falling. Water levels since have started falling again.

The streambed at Schoenchen remains dry, a sure sign of little recharge.

Based on a grading system put in place, the observation well is considered to still be in excellent shape, but, again, just barely.

It's strength, Dougherty said, goes back to the release of water in March from Cedar Bluff. The release boosted levels by nearly 4.5 feet, gaining back more than a year's worth of water use.

The recharge came with a heavy price for Cedar Bluff, however, as hundreds of millions of gallons of water were released to recharge Hays and Russell wellfields. Currently, Cedar Bluff is nearly 24 feet low, gaining little as recent rains all but missed the drainage basins feeding the lake.

That water from Cedar Bluff, however, is at least part of the reason why Dougherty has no intention of recommending Hays back away from its water watch status.

Taking away that release, he said, would put the Smoky wells in a water warning category.

"We don't have that card in our pocket any more," Dougherty said of being able to call for another release from the lake. "Unless there is a significant rain to recharge the Smoky, I plan to keep us in the water watch."

The status of Big Creek wells won't be changing much either.

He is confident, however, the heavy rains might have recharged smaller, private wells in Hays, and cloudy, cool conditions -- and the specter of drought -- have reduced demand.

Where summer water use normally would be 3 million gallons a day or greater, Dougherty said Hays residents have been using closer to 2.5 million gallons.

"I think a lot of awareness is helping out," he said. "The weather is helping out, too."

In Russell's case, Unrein said city council members already have decided to stick with its most severe water restrictions.

Based on conditions at both Big Creek and near Pfeifer, Unrein said he'd recommend against relaxing water restrictions.