Capturing every drop: Russell, Kan., learns to live with drought

“What we need is a gully washing, toad strangling rain,” Russell, Kan., Mayor Curt Mader said last week during a visit to the dry riverbed of the Smokey Hill River southwest of Russell, Kan. The city has 10 wells in the area.
“What we need is a gully washing, toad strangling rain,” Russell, Kan., Mayor Curt Mader said last week during a visit to the dry riverbed of the Smokey Hill River southwest of Russell, Kan. The city has 10 wells in the area. The Kansas City Star

Many of the 4,500 people of this central Kansas town are taking showers with buckets at their feet to refresh parched plants outside.

A few are placing trays under air conditioners to collect every drop of condensation.

To do his part to conserve Russell’s drinking water, resident Jim New is happy to wash his car from a hose attached to one of five rain barrels beneath his roof gutters.

Since the end of the crispy summer of 2012, a Russell ordinance has outlawed the “waste of water.” And yes, tapping the public utility to wash your car in the driveway is considered a waste.

Also prohibited, as long as drought continues: watering lawns, gardens, trees, shrubs, athletic fields and the municipal golf course. A one-day permit is required to fill a private pool or to just let kids romp through a sprinkler.

In the ways of water and how it’s consumed, a new normal has emerged in Russell and other Kansas communities in the grip of a multi-year drought.

Just 3 inches of moisture have fallen so far this year around Russell County, where conservation has become a daily practice.

Experts say it’s good thinking, even in places where water right now is abundant.

“We’ve been preaching it for years,” said climatologist Brian Fuchs of the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “We do live in a region of wet spells and dry spells. Communities need to learn to be drought-ready.”

He added: “I think you’ll be seeing more of these measures, especially in Plains states where conditions get drier the farther west you go.”

About 250 miles west of Kansas City, Russell bears the effects, good and bad, of a place miserly with its garden hoses.

“The community has done an exemplary job complying” with the outdoor watering bans, said City Manager Jon Quinday.

Total water consumption in 2013 dropped 22 percent from averages over the five years before restrictions took hold. Local businesses have cut their water use 25 percent, Quinday said.

But conservation is not without its costs.

Non-native evergreens and a birch tree have died at the base of a mural that celebrates “Historical Russell Kansas,” hometown of Bob Dole, the former U.S. senator and Republican presidential nominee.

Fescue lawns already are browning; some property owners have given up and covered parts of their yards with decorative rock.

Others have re-sodded with short, native buffalo grass, which will thrive this summer but look gnarlier than the fine turf that once grew there.

“What we need,” Mayor Curt Mader said, “is a gullywashing, toad-strangling rain.”

He was elected last year on a campaign that challenged the wisdom of strict watering rules. “Trees are a huge commodity to our community,” he said. And fast-food places near Interstate 70 are required by their franchises to hose down parking lots and keep shrubs maintained.

Mader conceded he has a financial stake in the matter, too. He runs Marvin’s Gardens, a nursery founded by his father. So, naturally, “I don’t want to see us become a desert,” he said.

No matter his personal interest, most voters agreed with Mader’s larger point — that more attention ought to be paid to developing future sources of water, not just to leveling fines against folks who don’t know how else to keep a tree alive.

He pressed the city to launch a regional study of the need for more wells, pipelines and water-recycling options.

“Whether it’s a person, a plant or a town,” Mader noted, “nothing grows without water.”

And Russell can’t grow, he said, without a long-term plan for water development: “If we have a big fire downtown, we could drain our towers. Then what?”

Swath of sand

Standing on a bridge over the public wellfield southwest of Russell, the mayor looks down upon the Smoky Hill River.

And all he sees is a winding swath of sand.

A nearby farmer, Nathan Roth, recalls when continual releases from the upstream Cedar Bluff Reservoir fed enough water into the Smoky Hill to allow him to swim in it all summer.

It has been mostly dry for years. Water levels in the reservoir are 26 feet below what’s needed to allow for continual releases.

The region surrounding Russell is suffering “extreme drought,” according to the National Drought Mitigation Center. The “extreme” designation — just one notch better than the “exceptional drought” plaguing California — applies to much of central, western and southern Kansas and has since early 2012, barring a spell of relief last fall.

(Missouri’s drought conditions dissipated months ago, the center’s weekly maps show.)

“Russell is right in the thick of where the drought never has lessened its hold,” said Tracy Streeter, director of the Kansas Water Office.

He said spring rains around the state’s major cities prompted “a lot of people to think, ‘Hey, drought’s over.’ But that wasn’t the case for most of Kansas. And certainly not for the people of Russell.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts conditions over the northern third of Kansas will slightly improve in coming months. Drought is expected to persist or worsen in the southern half.

Gov. Sam Brownback last month placed 56 Kansas counties, including Russell County, in an “emergency drought status,” enabling local officials to request water withdrawals from state fishing lakes.

Also at Brownback’s request, officials from the Kansas Water Office and the state Department of Agriculture are preparing a “50-Year Vision Plan” for managing and developing water resources across the state.

The plan should be completed by autumn. Streeter said it is apt to encourage community partnerships such as the “Locally Enhanced Management Areas” that govern use of the ancient Ogallala Aquifer, on which much of Kansas and other states rest.

Russell sits near the east edge of that aquifer, but the municipality does not draw from it. Its main sources are a corridor of water called Big Creek and the wellfield at Smoky Hill River.

The city owns annual rights to 2,000 acre-feet of water from the Cedar Creek Reservoir, 45 miles to the west. That’s more than enough to keep Russell quenched.

But Hays, Kan., also draws from pumps along the Smoky Hill between the reservoir and Russell. So when Russell needs water released from the reservoir, much of it gets absorbed by Hays.

The arid months of 2012 drove Russell to declare its worst state of water emergency, Stage IV.

Outdoor watering remains restricted. Violators face fines up to $250.

The city this year upped water rates to make heavy consumption (more than 3,000 gallons per month) a costly proposition.

“We surveyed people around town and most everyone agreed” to the rate hikes, Mayor Mader said. “If we’re going to develop new water resources, we needed to start collecting the money to do it.”

In addition, Russell officials, working with K-State Extension services and Fort Hays State University, have crafted programs to promote conservation:

City Hall distributes low-flow shower heads for free.

The city offers a $100 rebate to residents who buy a high-efficiency toilet.

The grade school issued sand timers for kids to take into showers and bathtubs. They were told that when the sand ran out, it was time to turn off the spigots.

Wasted water

Russell has roughly 2,000 residential water meters. To limit the amount of spinning on those meters, more than a third of the households have rain barrels.

Many homes have one or two. Larger spreads have eight, positioned at every downspout.

“Necessity is the mother of invention,” said resident New, a local volunteer promoting water conservation throughout town. “We’re looking at our future and people are learning: We’ve got to have water … but, man, we waste so much. It blows me away.”

New, 71, grew up here when residents trotted outside to their cisterns and filled buckets. Lawns were nothing but buffalo grass. So really, he said, Russell’s adjustment shouldn’t be that difficult.

In recent years the retired biologist began tracking water wasted in his own home. Precisely 1.3 gallons gushed from New’s shower tap into the drain before the water got hot. Some 39,000 gallons cascaded off his roof annually from rains and snowmelt.

Today he collects all he can in buckets and 55-gallon barrels. Municipal use in New’s home plunged from 6,000 gallons per month to 1,600.

“It becomes a mindset,” he said. “You either get into that conservation mode or you pay for living easy.”

He has gotten creative, painting his rain barrels to match the red brick and white mortar of his ranch home.

An assisted-living center used 240-gallon rain cubes to construct a Rube Goldberg irrigation system that soaks a 20-foot bed of vegetables. “A quarter-inch rain is enough to fill that cube up,” said maintenance man Jim Pemberton.

From her home at Fossil and First streets, Ruth Newman went online to order terracotta-style rain barrels, complementing her tile roof. A brief rain recently filled them up, allowing her to keep watering a lush rose garden.

“It’s not that hard,” she said. But, for sure, living with drought isn’t easy.

Newman just had the foundation of her home repaired at a cost of $15,000. She has lost two trees.

“I don’t run the dishwasher more than twice a week,” she said. “We don’t flush a lot …

“But what do you do? You accept what life throws at you and make the best of it.”

To reach Rick Montgomery, call 816-234-4410 or send email to rmontgomery@kcstar.com.