It’s sensible to sound the alarm on Wichita’s water system

We don’t have to imagine what might happen if Wichita’s aging water system shuts down, because we lived it — at least temporarily — about 25 years ago.

On a late-September morning in 1995, Wichita residents started the day grumpy and gritty as showers, toilets and faucets across the region stopped working. About 300,000 people were left without water for 12 hours and without water that was safe to drink until the following day.

Schools called off classes. Restaurants closed. Hospitals postponed medical procedures. Factories sent workers home early. Firefighters crossed their fingers and arranged to borrow water tender trucks from surrounding communities.

Crews were able to make repairs and get water flowing again before any major catastrophes. But that day illustrated how Wichita’s water system is a fragile network that relies on a single treatment plant and outdated, patched-together equipment.

Nearly a quarter-century later, the system remains shockingly vulnerable, as The Eagle reported in a series of recent stories.

Unfortunately, some city leaders have gotten defensive — criticizing media reports, blaming previous City Councils and taking a casual, “we’re working on it” approach that doesn’t acknowledge the severity of the crisis or inspire confidence.

Consultants recently found that 99% of Wichita’s water treatment plant and all of the city’s raw water pipes are in poor or very poor condition. The Kansas Department of Health and Environment labeled the situation “critical,” and also raised concerns about the city’s emergency water supply plan.

Alan King, Wichita’s director of public works and utilities, said the city’s water plant could fail at any moment. And because we have only one — unlike Colorado Springs, Des Moines, Oklahoma City, Omaha and Tulsa, which have multiple plants and back-up options — a shutdown here could mean disaster.

“We don’t want to have a catastrophic failure and put a half a million people without water,” King told City Council members during a workshop recently.

“And it may not just be for a little while. The kind of catastrophic failures that we could potentially have, have the possibility of putting us out of water for months.”

Mayor Jeff Longwell has called King’s comments “maybe a little dramatic.”

That’s right. They’re dramatic.

They’re also shocking, appropriate and overdue.

This crisis didn’t happen overnight. A new water treatment plant was identified as a need as early as 1993, but it wasn’t seriously considered until 2017, when a study found the plant in dreadful shape.

Wichita’s initial application for a loan through the Environmental Protection Agency was unsuccessful, in part because the project wasn’t shovel-ready — and that delayed the project by another year.

It’s understandable that Wichita leaders want to highlight what’s right with the city’s water system, including reasonable rates, and the fact that they’re working toward a permanent fix.

But they shouldn’t discount news reports or balk at critics who condemn decades of delays and misplaced priorities.

When something’s alarming, you sound the alarm.