Wichita City Council members voted unanimously Tuesday for almost $9 million in work on the city’s sewer system, the first step after the state fined the city $700,000 last year for a sewage release last year that killed 850 fish because of equipment failure and employee error.
The work, totaling $8.87 million, will be done this year out of sewer capital improvements funds – without any rate increases, said Alan King, public works director.
“I’m really glad to see this work getting done, especially without any rate hikes,” Vice Mayor Pete Meitzner said after the meeting. “When I first saw this, I wondered, ‘What’s the number going to be?’ ”
Centerpiece of the work is improvements to the main line at Plant 2, including an emergency response plan, the installation of two flowmeters, a spare parts inventory, rehabilitation work and inspection of the line.
There is also $1.4 million for the Plant 1 to Plant 2 main line – which handles about 60 percent of the city's sewer.
The chilling part of that work, as Meitzner put it, is that the line is 50 years old, runs under the Arkansas River and hasn’t had its integrity checked since installation, King said.
Other work includes emergency power for both plants – neither has any alternative power if the electricity fails – and enhanced UV disinfection capabilities.
In addition, the city has enhanced its monitoring of Arkansas River water downstream from the plant and will do the same around its other sewage facilities.
At the same time, river flows were historically low due to the drought, he said, and the Lincoln Street Dam had been raised for the Wichita River Festival, contributing to the fish kill.
“If we weren’t working on the dam at the time, we might never have known what happened,” Meitzner said Tuesday.
The city paid $243,195 of the fine for the leak, which occurred at Plant 2, the city’s oldest facility at 2305 E. 57th St. South, best known, as Mayor Carl Brewer has said in the past, for “all the smell complaints we get.” However, the state is allowing the civil part of the fine – $455,000 – to be applied to a citywide study of deferred sewer maintenance. The remaining fine will be paid out of the public works operating budget.
Two employees “were terminated for cause” in the incident, King said last year.
The equipment failure wasn’t a surprise to city officials. The city has put $5.5 million in rate money away for repair and replacements in the sewer system, and expects to put about the same away in 2014, while financing a broader risk assessment of the citywide system.
“We’re catching up on blocking and tackling for maintenance that hasn’t gotten done,” Meitzner said Tuesday.