Politics & Government

Wichita’s vulnerable water system concerns state agency, emails show

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Drinking water is essential to good health. However, drinking too much water causes low sodium levels and can result in a mild to life-threatening condition called hyponatremia. So, how much water should the average person drink?
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Drinking water is essential to good health. However, drinking too much water causes low sodium levels and can result in a mild to life-threatening condition called hyponatremia. So, how much water should the average person drink?

It’s unclear how Wichita plans to provide safe drinking water if its water system shuts down, according to a letter the state’s environmental agency sent the city.

The state has not approved the city’s emergency water supply plan, saying the plan does not “define clear options for providing deliverance of treated, safe drinking water to its customers during an emergency which is the purpose of the plan,” according to a July 10 letter to the city.

The July letter mentioned that providing bottled water for 500,000 people would not be a viable option.

Wichita’s water is safe to drink, tests show, but its treatment plant is 80 years old. The average life expectancy of a water treatment plant is 50 years. An assessment two years ago found that 99% of its parts were in poor or very poor condition, and 100% of the city’s raw water pipes were in very poor condition.

City spokeswoman Elyse Mohler said the city’s water department inspects and monitors its systems to identify and prevent failures, retains on-call contractors and keeps spare parts on hand for quick fixes when things break.

Wichita also is putting away money to fix any problems that may arise. Its budget for next year sets aside $25 million for emergency construction at its water treatment plant.

The Wichita Eagle reported on the fragile state of Wichita’s water supply last month, and city officials have since assured the public that staff have enough experience and spare parts to keep the water system running until a new treatment plant is built.

That’s expected to take at least five years. The new plant is in the design phase.

“Until they get the new plant built, it has to (keep running),” Tom Stiles, director of KDHE’s water bureau, told The Eagle. His agency oversees the state’s public water suppliers and makes sure they’re in compliance with state and federal laws and regulations.


Why did we report this story?

Wichita’s water supply is vulnerable to failure, and its infrastructure is in bad shape. A new water treatment plant won’t be finished for at least five years. We wanted to see if Wichita’s city leaders had a plan in case of an emergency.

How did we get this story?

We discovered the Kansas Department of Health and Environment’s concerns with Wichita’s Emergency Water Supply Plan and Hess Pump Station in a batch of open records requested from the state.

Who did we talk to for this story?

We communicated with various city, state and federal officials about emergency water supply plans. Quotes from the Environmental Protection Agency did not make it into the story but helped explain the purpose of the plans.

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.

Since 1982, Kansas has required water suppliers to have an emergency plan in place. KDHE requires communities to prepare for such things as flooding, drought, tornadoes and mechanical failures. It has been prodding the city of Wichita to update or correct inaccuracies in its plan for six years.

“And whether it’s a law or not, failure for them to do that would put them in the cross-hairs of their customer base for not doing their job,” Stiles said.

In addition to the state law, new federal regulations now require larger water suppliers to assess risks involving natural disasters, malevolent acts, and the operation and maintenance of the facilities. Those new plans are due in 2020.

Stiles said he’s confident Wichita has the necessary resources and qualified staff to keep the plant running until a new one gets built.

But so far the city’s plan, which is not subject to open records act for security reasons, hasn’t satisfied KDHE.

“Their track record has been good, but their time is running out just because of the age of their infrastructure and their ability to take on new challenges,” Stiles said.

Significant deficiency

Wichita has had experience with emergency situations, Stiles said.

“Fifteen or 20 years ago, they ran into some of this,” he said.

That’s when the main pipe coming down from the Equus Beds broke near the Sedgwick County Zoo.

“They scrambled and had to make it work,” he said. “But there was a short period of time where such a contingency did actually happen. Just rally your people and get all your resources you need to have brought on-site to be able to deal with it.”

The state’s most recent inspection of Wichita’s water system uncovered several minor issues, from a homeless person sleeping in a pump facility to oil leaking into a well.

But the most significant “deficiency” found during the inspection was that Wichita didn’t have a written Emergency Water Supply Plan. The state said the city has “pertinent information” available, but that information is not compiled into a single, written plan.

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The state has been prodding the city about its Emergency Water Supply Plan for six years, according to inspection reports obtained through the Kansas Open Records Act.

The most recent nudge came this winter.

When Wichita sent in a written plan in response, the state wouldn’t approve it.

While Wichita’s emergency plan outlines “broad responses” to a water outage, it doesn’t define clear options for delivering clean water to its customers, KDHE said.

Mohler, the city’s spokeswoman, said the city’s plan is focused on restoring the water supply. It includes the staff that will be involved in the response, on-call contractors and engineers, and equipment to help restore the supply.

Although plans must include how a city will quickly restore service, they must also include what the city will do in the meantime to provide drinkable water to the people tapped into Wichita’s water system.

Wichita’s water treatment plant also serves Derby, Valley Center, Andover, Rose Hill, Bel Aire, Park City, Kechi, Benton, Bentley, Eastborough, Oaklawn, and Rural Water Districts 1, 3 and 8.

Wichita has limitations

Wichita’s water supply is uniquely vulnerable for a system its size. It serves about 500,000 people, but only has one water treatment plant.

To put that in perspective, Colorado Springs has five plants. Des Moines has four. Oklahoma City and Omaha each has three. Tulsa has two. Even Johnson County’s water system has multiple treatment plants, a check of the EPA’s water system database found. If one plant has an equipment failure, the other plants can still provide residents with drinking water.

Because Wichita has only one water treatment plant, its poor condition constitutes “an unacceptable level of risk” to the region, the city recently told the EPA as part of a loan application.

“The city staff is fully aware of the vulnerability the current plant has, and they’re remaining vigilant to make sure those situations (that would cause a water disruption) don’t arise,” Stiles said.

But the water treatment plant isn’t the only vulnerability in Wichita’s water system. The existing plant’s clearwell storage, electrical service, chemical service and main water lines all “present single point failure points that could put the community out of water,” the city told the EPA in 2017.

The KDHE inspection report expressed concerns about the “limitations” in Wichita’s water system, and recommended that they become a priority for the city. The inspection was in November and KDHE sent its report in December.

Mohler said Friday that the city keeps an emergency supply of drinking water in various underground locations.

That supply varies from 5 to 10 million gallons, she said.

Wichita customers use between 66 to 118 million gallons a day, depending on weather, according to Wichita’s Water and Sewer Master Plan.

She said the 5 million to 10 million gallons would be enough for 10 to 20 days. That would be about 1 gallon a person each day.

“This will ensure continued water service in the event of an emergency,” she wrote in an email.

It’s not clear how the city would ration the water. The state, quoting the Department of Defense’s guidelines for a nuclear attack, recommends a half gallon to 5 gallons a person each day for survival conditions.

Pump station concerns

Wichita has two primary sources of water, the Equus Beds Aquifer and Cheney Reservoir.

The aquifer is groundwater about 25 miles northwest of Wichita that was the primary source of drinking water until 1965, when a 21-mile pipeline from Cheney Reservoir was tied into the water treatment plant near Sim Park in Riverside.

No matter where the water comes from, most of it has to run through a single pump station before it goes out to people’s homes. That concerns KDHE.

A November inspection by the agency pinpointed Wichita’s reliance on Hess Pump Station as an issue that needs to be addressed when the city builds a new treatment plant.

“Although the project for the new water treatment plant is moving along and providing redundancy in treatment, there is major concern for the lack of redundancy in the distribution system since the new treatment plant will also utilize Hess Pump Station to distribute water,” the KDHE inspection report says.

“This vulnerability in the system will have catastrophic effects if an emergency occurs at the Hess Pump Station,” it says.

Hess Pump Station was put into service in 1974, replacing a pump station that had been in use since 1888.

In 1998, the city replaced seven of the original pumps, giving Hess Pump Station a firm capacity of about 200 million gallons a day, but it has recently required emergency repairs to keep running. Two years ago, City Manager Robert Layton declared a public exigency to spend $100,000 to replace a 2,000 horsepower motor that failed at the pump station.

The new treatment plant would have a firm capacity of 120 million gallons a day. The city would continue to use Hess, but the new plant would also have a smaller pump station with a capacity of 27 million gallons a day.

Mohler told the Eagle on Friday that KDHE “doesn’t recognize” the redundancies at the Hess Pump Station, including five tanks, eight pumps and a backup electrical system.

The final design for the Northwest Water Treatment Facility project has not yet been approved by the City Council, which is expected to consider a design of just under a third of the plant and a final price for the new plant in October. The new plant is expected to cost around $524 million and the city is seeking state and federal funding to help pay for it.

KDHE said that project “would be an ideal vehicle to ensure the city had additional avenues to deliver treated water to its customers.”

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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.