Politics & Government

Wichita’s water plant: ‘Every hour that thing is running, it could fail’

Next time water comes out of your tap, don’t take it for granted.

Wichita’s only water treatment plant could fail at any moment.

“It keeps me awake at night . . .” said Alan King, Wichita’s director of public works and utilities. “Every hour that thing is running, it could fail — right as we’re talking, right now.”

Critical infrastructure at the plant is 80 years old and has outlived its useful life. To fully fix it, the city would have to shut it down. There is no backup.

A shutdown or failure could leave about 500,000 people without running water. The affected area includes some of the state’s largest hospitals, multiple fire departments, a fifth of the Kansas economy and a U.S. military base.

And a new plant won’t be finished anytime soon — not until 2024 at the earliest. Wichita is applying for loans to pay for it now.

In the meantime, the city will have to spend millions of dollars on a plant it plans to put out of commission within five years. Water rates are expected to continue to climb for the next decade. By 2028, Wichitans’ water and sewer bills could be triple what they were 10 years ago, according to city projections.


Why did we report this story?

Water is one of our most precious resources. We literally can’t live without it. Wichita is about to invest $1 billion in a new water treatment facility, and The Wichita Eagle wanted to know why it was needed. (Read more by clicking the arrow in the upper right.)

How did we get this story?

After Wichita’s City Council approved the first-phase contract of the new water plant, we started requesting records and digging deeper into the state of the existing infrastructure. We obtained more than 3,000 pages of documents related to Wichita’s water system dating back to 1993, including a recent condition assessment.

Did we miss something?

If you think we missed something or if you have additional information to share, please contact reporter Chance Swaim at 316-269-6752 or cswaim@wichitaeagle.com. Have suggestions for follow-up stories? Please let us know.

How bad is the plant? The Wichita Eagle obtained more than 3,000 pages of documents related to Wichita’s water system dating back to 1993, including a recent condition assessment.

Some of the key findings are alarming:

99% of Wichita’s water treatment plant was in poor or very poor condition, and 100% of Wichita’s raw water pipes were in very poor condition at the last assessment. That was two years ago.

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment has labeled the situation “critical.”

Wichita’s entire water system has a “significant risk” of failure and lacks redundancy, meaning if a major asset fails, it can’t be fixed without shutting the whole plant down.

Deferred maintenance has piled up over the years, and fixing the existing infrastructure is expected to cost hundreds of millions of dollars in the next decade. Utility rates are expected to increase 78% during that time.

The documents, obtained through open records requests and other resources available to the public, detail the high risk to Wichita’s water supply and the devastating socioeconomic harm a failure would have on Kansas’ largest city.

Poor and very poor

King said the water system was already in trouble when he took the job in 2011. He said it surprised him that a city Wichita’s size had a single water treatment plant. That means if it stops working, so does the entire system.

“A single point of failure’s not good,” he said. “But if you have some redundancy, and if you have it in good enough condition, then it’s okay.

“Well, this is neither. There’s not redundancy and it’s in poor condition.”

Although he had his suspicions about the plant’s sad state, they weren’t confirmed until February 2017.

That’s when Ch2m Hill, Table Rock Capital and Goldman Sachs assessed the condition of 108,816 water utility assets from Wichita to Cheney, which are 99.2% of the city’s water utility infrastructure. It graded those assets from very good, meaning only normal maintenance was required, to very poor, meaning more than 50% of the asset needed to be replaced. A poor score meant 20%-40% of a part needed to be repaired or replaced.

The assessment made it clear something major needed to be done, King said.

It found that 100% of raw water pipes more than 20 feet in length were in very poor condition. Those are the pipes that bring untreated water to the treatment plant from Cheney Reservoir.

At the existing water plant, 99% of its assets scored poor or very poor condition. That included all the moving parts and pumps and filters that clean the water.

Overall, nearly a third (31.2%) of the water system’s infrastructure was found to be in poor or very poor condition.

26 years and counting

Until recently, not much has been done about building a new plant.

It was first identified as a need for the city in 1993. Two years later, Wichita bought land for it near 21st and Zoo Boulevard. But the city didn’t start searching for construction funding until after the assessment in 2017.

Unlike the existing plant, the new one will be fully redundant, King said, so a major repair won’t shut off the city’s water supply. It would have the capacity to treat 120 million gallons a day and be versatile enough to treat 100% groundwater or 100% surface water.

The project is expected to take four or five years.

Its timing depends on whether Wichita is approved for a loan from the Environmental Protection Agency, financing made available for crumbling infrastructure through the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act.

In 2017, Wichita submitted a letter of interest but was not invited to apply for the loan. This year, the city received an invitation. The application is due at the end of October.

The City Council approved $7 million for the first phase of the project earlier this year.

King said if the city gets a loan from the EPA, it could start construction as early as the end of 2020. He called that date “optimistic.“

Construction is expected to cost around $524 million, according to the city’s letter of interest. That loan would cover up to 49% and a loan from the state would cover up to 50%. The other 1% would come from the city’s water utility funds.

Paying down the debt on the new plant could cost more than $1 billion. That would all come from water customers.

The project is so expensive that without a loan from the EPA it could be delayed seven years while the city figures out how to pay for it.

‘Making it work’

In the meantime, Public Works and Utilities is tasked with keeping the aging infrastructure in working order. So far, there haven’t been any major safety concerns and the water is still of drinking quality.

“We’re making it work, we continue to make it work, but we keep experiencing failures on really most all the major components in the treatment plant,” King said.

A few years ago, a main line corroded near the entrance to the plant and flooded Botanica. Luckily, the city caught it before it burst.

“If it had failed, and it came very close to failing, the amount of water it would have released would have actually done some hydraulic mining and washed half of the building down into the river,” King said.

“It scared the fool out of us,” he said.

The water system has had one or two close calls like that a year for almost a decade, King said. From problems with its electrical components to aeration systems to corroded pipes, things break.

And then the city does what it can to keep the water flowing, even if that means busting out the duct tape.

“We actually had one lime slaker that we held together by wrapping duct tape around it,” King said.

A lime slaker converts pebble lime into slurry, one part of a complex process that cleans and softens water before it goes out to customers.

Paying for deferred maintenance looks to be an expensive undertaking. In addition to the costs for a new plant, the city could spend more than $350 million on capital improvements to the water system in the next 10 years, according to the latest draft of the city budget.

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Chance Swaim won the Betty Gage Holland Award in 2018 for distinguished service to honor and protect the integrity of public dialogue on America’s college campuses. He has been a news reporter for The Wichita Eagle since 2018. You can contact him at 316-269-6752 and cswaim@wichitaeagle.com.