Omaha firm might help Wichita officials figure out water problems

The firm city officials want to hire to re-evaluate the massive aquifer recharge project that is driving up water rates has extensive experience and has worked in Wichita before.

HDR Engineering Inc. would begin work almost immediately and have a final report in 30 days if Wichita City Council members approve the $185,000 agreement Tuesday.

"And that's good because we need answers quick," said Chris Carrier, the water utility's interim director.

HDR's report could affect how much water rates increase in coming years and how the city approaches future water needs.

The Omaha-based firm will examine how water consumption has changed, how that could affect future water needs and whether the latest phase of an aquifer recharge project can be scaled back.

The crux of the city's water finance problem: It is in the middle of a $550 million Equus Beds Aquifer storage and recovery project at a time when consumption has declined because of consumer conservation and several rainy years in a row.

Miscalculations on financing the project and unusually high spending on a sewer line expansion program made it worse.

Those factors led City Manager Robert Layton to call for a 15 percent rate increase starting June 1 to prevent the city from facing a credit rating downgrade that could cost taxpayers millions.

Layton has also put a hold on new construction on the aquifer project, leaving contractors anxious.

Aquifer project

The aquifer recharge involves capturing high water flows from the Little Arkansas River north of Wichita, treating the water and injecting it into the aquifer.

The project pushes back polluted groundwater migrating toward the city's water wells and is projected to provide enough water to last 50 years.

Carrier said the city is trying to answer a lot of big questions about the project.

"Are we really doing the right thing here? Do we really have a water supply problem? Do we really need to spend this much money this quickly? Can we slow this project down any?" he said. "There's an awful lot of interrelated things here. It's not as simple as slow the project down or stop the project."

One question the city is not asking for the moment is who will be the next director of the city's utility.

The city had sought a replacement for former utility director David Warren, who abruptly resigned a week before the city publicized the utility's financial problems.

But Layton said the companies responding to the city's request didn't offer anyone with substantially more experience with a water utility than Carrier, who is the city's public works director.

Layton said Carrier will receive a raise and the city probably won't start a nationwide search for a new director until after HDR's report is complete and the city knows more about what it will do to shore up the utility's financial woes.

HDR's history

HDR was one of four firms to submit proposals.

Others were Raftelis Financial Consultants Inc., MWH Americas Inc. and Shaw Environmental and Infrastructure Inc.

HDR emerged after an eight-person committee reviewed the proposals in March and interviewed HDR on April 2.

Carrier said HDR stood out.

"What really impressed all of us about them was the strength of their team in the area of utility financial management," he said.

HDR has worked on a wide variety of projects, including urban planning and waste management.

It developed a groundwater plan and aquifer recharge project for the San Antonio Water System and designed and built the Platte West Water Production Facilities in Omaha.

It also recently completed a 50-year water supply plan for Salina.

Martha Tasker, director of utilities there, said that she, her staff and elected officials were pleased with the firm's work.

"They're very good, timely and within budget," she said.

The plan "was written very well and was very understandable," she said. "We felt good about it in the end."

HDR was also hired under a federal grant in Wichita in 2001 to identify sources of bacteria and propose solutions to make the Arkansas and Little Arkansas rivers consistently safe for swimming and boating.

It mapped six bacterial hot spots.

The firm has recently run into some problems with the design of the $140 million C.W. Bill Young Regional Reservoir in central Florida.

After discovering cracks in the reservoir, Tampa water officials voted to sue HDR Engineering, Barnard Construction Co. and Construction Dynamics Group, according to articles in the St. Petersburg Times in 2008 and 2009.

Court records show the suit is ongoing.

Layton and Carrier said they don't think that's particularly relevant for Wichita since the firm is producing a study, not designing a huge reservoir.

And both noted that firms with hundreds of major projects across the country inevitably end up in lawsuits at some point.

Carrier said the most important thing for Wichita — and the communities that depend on its water supply — is the financial planning.

Carrier said he has high hopes for Jeff McGarvey, the financial analyst on the project.

"We think and have hopes that he'll be able to chart a course for us when we get done with this that is less painful for everybody than what we know today," he said.