A sewage leak a year ago that’s going to cost Wichita taxpayers almost $250,000 is proof that the city’s utility infrastructure is crumbling, Wichita officials said Monday.
The city has been fined almost $700,000 by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment for a sewage leak that killed 850 fish. However, the state is allowing the civil part of the fine – $455,000 – to be applied to a citywide study of deferred sewer and water maintenance.
The remainder of the fine – $243,195 in compensatory damages – will be paid by the city, public works director Alan King said Monday morning.
On Tuesday, the City Council will be asked to approve a consent order with KDHE that includes the fines and the city’s plans to begin addressing the deteriorated state of its water and sewer systems.
Mayor Carl Brewer said in January that an estimated $2.1 billion is needed over the next 30 years to maintain or replace the majority of the city’s water, sewer and storm drainage systems, which have been neglected for more than a decade as past councils sought to hold taxes down.
“It certainly goes to that, and as we start making improvements to our system, it identifies that we have to work faster in making those improvements,” Brewer said Monday.
The fines stem from a valve failure May 25, 2012, at the city’s south sewer plant on 57th Street South that dumped partially treated sewage into the Arkansas River, King said.
The leak was discovered during a routine quality check near the East 83rd Street bridge on the west side of Derby, where tests showed the water contained unsafe levels of bacteria.
King said that a seal had rotted on a gate valve, allowing the sewage to enter the river. That gate has since been plugged with concrete and is no longer functional.
“That’s the contributing factor to the fish kill, along with other factors,” King said. Others include historically low flows last year in the Arkansas River and attempts to raise the river’s water level downtown for Riverfest in June.
After the contamination was discovered last year, the state issued a health advisory for the river from the Lincoln Street bridge to the Oklahoma border. People and animals were advised to avoid contact with river water. That advisory was lifted June 8.
Doug Nygren, fisheries chief for the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks, and Tourism, said the Wichita fish kill is relatively small. Many run into the thousands, he said.
“We work multiple fish kills each year,” he said. “Most are due to natural causes. Occasionally, we do have a responsible party, but those are relatively rare — maybe two or three events a year.”
The value of the fish killed is determined through an American Fishery Society book that values freshwater fish, Nygren said. That value is based on the cost of buying the same fish from a private fish grower and restocking the affected area. The value does not include the punitive part of the KDHE fine.
On Monday, Brewer said he didn’t know what city fund would be used to pay the fine.
Brewer said he expects the council to approve the consent order and paying the fine of a quarter-million dollars. But not before King offers a public explanation.
“We’re talking about a large amount of money that we’re being fined for a fish kill,” Brewer said. “The public certainly deserves an explanation for how this came to happen.”