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As temps rise, levels go down

For the third time this summer, weather forces mandatory restrictions on Cheney irrigation


August 16, 2018

For the second time in two weeks, Cheney residents were faced with the imposition of irrigation restrictions to deal with low water levels in the city’s five reservoirs.

Unlike past mandatory restrictions, the prohibiting of irrigation from July 25-28 and Aug. 8-10 was brought about by extremely hot weather only, rather than hot weather combined with mechanical malfunctions at city wells. A third irrigation restriction was imposed early in July when levels dropped to 12.8 feet on July 10 as temperatures hit the high 80s for the first time this year, topping 91 on July 9.

The most recent mandatory lawn watering shutdown comes on the heels of a stretch of hot weather where temperatures soared past 90 degrees in 13 of 17 days, including 10 straight from July 23-Aug. 1.

Overall, Cheney has seen the temperature top 90 degrees 20 times in the last 41 days. Meanwhile, the last measurable amount of precipitation occurred on June 21 when, according to the National Weather Service, a quarter inch of rain fell.

Cheney Public Works Director Todd Ableman said water levels plunged to 12.7 feet the morning of Aug. 8, with the temperature subsequently reaching 98 later in the day. Temperatures eventually hit 103 on Thursday, Aug. 9, and 102 on Friday, Aug. 10, before dipping below 90 over the weekend. Cheney officials cited this stretch of hot weather as the cause of people watering their lawns more, resulting in reservoir levels “dropping critically low again.”

Compounding this was a wildland fire on Aug. 6 northwest of Cheney along Interstate 90. Ableman said Department of Natural Resources fire crews set up base camp at Cheney Middle School, and used city hydrants to fill their attack trucks with water.

“They (DNR) said they would grab their water outside of Cheney,” Ableman said of a subsequent agreement.

When reservoir levels dip too low, the city first shuts down irrigation of parks as well as making a request of the school district to stop watering its playing fields. If levels don’t rebound, residential and business irrigation restrictions are imposed with the hopes of a quick return to normal.

“If we had 100 percent compliance to shutdown (irrigation), we’d have all that water going into our reservoirs and it would only take a day or two to get back up,” Ableman said.

In an Aug. 13 email, Ableman said reservoir levels rebounded to 19.8 feet on Aug. 9, 23.8 feet Aug. 10 and were currently at 26.1 feet.

The restrictions did not extend to Eastern Washington University, which is on its own water system separate from the city, although both ultimately pull water from the same underground aquifer source. Restrictions also did not affect three city open spaces — Sutton and Salnave parks along with Moos Field —irrigated by a well separate from the city’s main system.

Well 4, at a depth of 2,136 feet, produces around 370 gallons per minute, according to city data, but is not hooked to the system due to turbidity issues. Ableman said the well, located on Washington Street at Sutton Park, has defied past clean up attempts, but may be the subject of additional filtration measures in the future, with the hopes it can be added to the city’s domestic supply.

Ableman said steps to build up the city’s system — which uses two wells to provide all Cheney’s water needs from October – May but must be augmented by four additional wells during irrigation season — are under way. Officials recently met with Blue Star Construction on the initial portion of a $1.8 million redrill of the city’s well 3.

Well 3 has been a non-producer for years, due to what officials believe was a collapse of the well casing. Blue Star bid $724,000 to drill a new well next to the old shaft — which was originally 549 feet deep — on Erie Street.

If the location reveals to be a good water source, the city will go ahead with the rest of the project’s costs by installing a pump and well house sometime in 2019.

Ableman said a conversation on the future of Cheney’s water supply will not only revolve around new wells but measures such as conservation, revised landscaping standards and the possibility of using reclaimed water for irrigation purposes — at least for large commercial users.

John McCallum can be reached at


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