What do Wichita’s crumbling water and sewer pipes mean for the future?

Carl Brewer’s moment of truth came in the heat of last summer, when a water main ruptured near Galichia Heart Hospital in northeast Wichita.

“A hospital without water? Can you imagine that?” the Wichita mayor asked. “I mean, we were really scrambling. Rolling fire trucks out there, getting the people and plans in place for the quickest fix possible.

“That one made it pretty clear: This kind of thing can’t be happening in Wichita.”

Incidents like that pushed Brewer to drop a bombshell during his State of the City address: The city’s water and sewer system – after more than a decade of little or no maintenance as past councils sought to hold mill levies and water rates steady – is going to need at least $2.1 billion in repair and upgrades over the next 30 years.

Brewer’s announcement left a packed City Hall audience murmuring as they filtered out after the speech: Where’s that money coming from? Isn’t that a tax increase? Will my water and sewer rates go up?

Quick answers

What do the crumbling water and sewer pipes mean to Wichitans? The city is not getting ready to do a $2.1 billion bond issue to fix the whole system at once. City officials have implemented a maintenance and repair plan under the leadership of Public Works Director Alan King and City Manager Robert Layton, and they’re going to do as much work as they can each year.

And no, your property taxes aren’t going up. Layton said this week that the council remains committed to maintaining current mill levies.

The ongoing work will be paid for largely through capital improvements project money, some borrowing through bond issues and other revenues.

About “other revenues:” If you enjoyed the days of steady water and sewer rates a decade ago, they’re gone. In their place will be annual percentage increases in the mid-single digits to repair and replace lines.

“What the mayor is saying is that if we rely on traditional funding methods through our CIP, our water and sewer rates, GO (general obligation bonding) and cash, will there be enough to take care of the deferred maintenance of the last 10 or 15 years?” Layton asked.

“Can we get that done with existing resources? We’re certainly going to try.”

The problem

The city’s water and sewer system gets a qualified thumbs up – “for its age” – from King, who has been the city’s public works chief for about 18 months.

He said the city’s utility system has suffered from about 10 to 15 years of maintenance neglect, dating back to the mid-1990s, as steady rates and taxes politically trumped maintaining the system.

Using revenues from sewer and water rate increases the past two years, the city has ratcheted up its water main repair and replacement rates closer to industry benchmarks, King said.

Water main breaks around the city have been above national averages since 2010, King said. In addition, although sewer blockage reports are down since 2007, they remain 8.5 percent higher than national averages.

“We have a very effective, I think, outcome-based maintenance plan in progress,” he said. “We do video inspections, use high-velocity jets to flush them out, we cut roots out and we grout when we can.

“But here’s the thing. Age is a serious problem with the system. Ultimately, a structure even like pipe is going to fail, and when it does, it fails with more and more frequency and expense.”

There are no particular trouble spots in the city’s utility system, King said. But he called the city’s systems downtown “definitely an ongoing challenge” as revitalization projects spring up.

“There’s some fairly old stuff down here and an awful lot of old buildings you have to take into consideration when we’re digging around things,” he said. “You’d be surprised where we find pipes and the condition they’re in.”

Predictably, the utility systems in west and east Wichita, the site of much of the city’s growth, are in the best shape, King said.

But they are not immune to problems, as the Galichia main break last summer illustrates.

A problem nationwide

Crumbling infrastructure is stressing municipal budgets across the nation, and little federal financial help is available, said Ron Carlee, chief operating officer for the International City/County Management Association in Washington, D.C.

Carlee identified three major issues:

• Age. “The good news is that many infrastructure components – bridges, water distribution systems, storm water systems, and sanitary sewer systems – have very long lives if well maintained. Some last 50 to 75 years,” Carlee said. “The bad news is that many systems were built at the same time when a city experienced its initial growth phase. For a number of cases, this was 50 to 75 years ago. Many systems are simply approaching the end of their life expectancy.”

• Maintenance. “In some cases, appropriate maintenance has not occurred, resulting in accelerated or more extensive deterioration,” he said

“Why? Mainly because maintenance is neither cheap nor sexy. Maintenance provides nothing new or wonderful for the community. In most cases, the voters and taxpayers will ‘see’ nothing for their money. ... Preventive maintenance is one of the hardest dollars to budget in a city.”

• Lack of resources. “While the circumstances vary, much of the first generation infrastructure was built by or funded by developers as they built commercial and residential centers. The cost was recovered in the private financing of the project,” Carlee said.

“Today, most of that infrastructure is now owned by the public. Neither its maintenance nor replacement typically creates a new funding stream unless the project is part of a much larger redevelopment. This strains local budgets, especially in cities that have been hit hard by the recession and/or operate with tax caps and other revenue restrictions.”

Same thing in Kansas, said Kim Winn, deputy director of the League of Kansas Municipalities.

How Wichita got here

In city-speak, the water and sewer system has a “deferred maintenance problem.” Some would call it neglect.

What that means is that past mayors, councils and staff chose the “pay later” option to hold rates and taxes steady, rather than “pay now.”

“There has been a tremendous amount of pressure over the years on water and sewer rates,” Layton said. “There’s been a lot of concern in the public about the cost of ASR (the city’s Equus Beds aquifer storage and recovery project, adopted in 1993) and what that’s done to rates.

“Our council every year hears from community members who say the rate increases need to be kept within the cost of living.”

Layton said past mayors lobbied the council successfully to freeze rates. “On top of that, I don’t believe past councils before I got here were actively engaged to control the future of these systems.”

“While I’ve been here, they’d just come in and tell us what they needed to do debt service. Not a lot of detail,” Brewer said. “And then, we’d tell them as a council what we’d give them. It was more of a financial negotiation. Not sure we ever had a total handle on what’s going on underground like we do now.”

The result is a sewer and water system in need of work.

“Any time you fall below a reasonable renewal and replacement rate, you’re deferring costs into the future and that’s where we’re at,” King said.

And those renewal and replacement bills are higher now than they would have been 10 years ago, King said, because of increases in construction and labor costs.

“Think of it as a house,” he said. “If you hate painting your house and you don’t paint it, then you’re eventually going to be hit putting more money in later to replace the siding.”

Layton said the goal is annual increases in the 4 or 5 percent range. The rate plan for 2013 raised residential rates 3 percent and business rates about 7 percent.

The city’s plan

A big plank of the city’s plan to phase in repairs and replacement is a significant change in how utilities resources are spent, Layton said. Maintenance and replacement now trump growth as priorities, he said.

“We’re going to make sure we address the issues we have above and below ground before we start talking again about extending water, sewer and streets to the growth areas of the community,” he said. “I think that’s a pretty vivid recognition of the seriousness of the problem.”

Vice Mayor Janet Miller said emphasizing repair over growth is a matter of economics.

“There’s a growing body of literature out there that shows pretty clearly that while aggressive growth on a city’s fringe generates new taxes, it doesn’t generate enough to cover our infrastructure costs when you look at what you’re giving up in lieu – the repair, replacement and maintenance of the infrastructure in the city’s core.”