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After Decades Of Underinvestment, Kansas City Pumping Money Into Water Infrastructure

Elle Moxley
KCUR 89.3
A work crew replaces a water main at 75th and Wyandotte. It will take six months to complete a two-block span.

The unfolding lead crisis in Flint, Michigan, has put tap water in the spotlight.

Unlike Flint, Kansas City has few lead pipes. But it has its share of aging infrastructure.

“Well, our first sewer dates back to the Civil War,” says Terry Leeds, director of KC Water Services. “Our oldest water mains that we think we have in service date back to 1874 in the City Market.”

Now that antique infrastructure is nearing the end of its useful life, and the city is on track to invest $1.2 billion over the next 25 years to replace it.

‘The City of Fountains’

Kansas City isn’t the only city that buried its pipes and forgot about them.

Across the country, Leeds says, water has been an undervalued utility. The problem began in the ’60s. Water rates started low and stayed low, even as the oldest pipes in Kansas City hit the century mark.

Leeds says Kansas City is paying for that underinvestment now. Even six years of double-digit rate increase hasn’t been enough to replace pipes as fast as they’re breaking.

“What does it look like?” Leeds says. “Well, when water mains fail, you have a lot of extra fountains around town. We’re the City of Fountains.”

Andy Shively, the water department’s engineering officer, is quick to point out that he’d rather that reputation not come from broken water mains.

Usually the city handles about 700 water main breaks a year. But Shively says a couple of drought years, 2011 and 2012, really brought home just how bad Kansas City’s pipes had gotten.

“Those cast iron water lines that are normally very reliable become unreliable during dry weather because they can’t take that soil movement,” Shively says.

Dry soil shifts, old pipes burst, and suddenly there’s a fountain in the middle of the street. Some of the breaks caused major disruptions. The water department needed a way to better predict future failures.

So Shively’s team began entering some 20,000 individual water records into a database.

“Our oldest records were handwritten notes dating back to the late 1800s,” Shively says.

There wasn’t always much to go on, just whatever the contractor for the job had jotted down.

Credit KC Water Services
Many of the 20,000 records entered into a water department database were incomplete.

From these records, Shively’s team built a hydraulic model of Kansas City, which they subdivided into 70,000 individual pipe segments and assigned each a score from one to ten.

The scores measure two things: how likely a pipe is to fail, and how bad it’ll be when it does.

“Predictive analysis is as much as an art as it is an a scientist,” Shively says. “So main breaks, although we would like to have a crystal ball that told us where exactly where these things were going to occur every time, that’s not reality.”

2,800 miles of water main

Six months. That’s how long it takes to replace just two blocks of water main with new pipe that can better withstand drought.

“This section is on Wyandotte from 75th to 77th,” Brooke Hudlemeyer says. “They are replacing a 6-inch cast iron pipe with an 8-inch ductile iron pipe.”

It’s not as simple as jackhammering up the street, tearing out the old pipe and putting a new line in. There’s also lots of testing and weeks of remediation to minimize the impact on nearby homes and businesses.

“For established yards we put sod down. Asphalt, concrete, driveways, everything,” Hudlemeyer says.

Even at a pace of 28 miles of pipe a year, it’ll take the water department 100 years to finish the job. Then they’ll have to start over – the pipes going into the ground today have a 100-year lifespan.

“Mainly just be patient with us,” Hudlemeyer says.” We’ll get there!”

Planning for the future

Kansas City Mayor Sly James says that for too long, Kansas City ran its water utility like the well would never run dry. As a result, James says, most of the improvements slated for the next two decades should have been made 30 years ago

In January, he joined other mayors at the White House to talk about the importance of investing in municipal water.

“Our job, quite frankly, is not to keep focused on those things, it's to make sure they never have to,” James says. “It's to make sure the infrastructure is in good repair and being replaced at a rate that we can and to try to avoid as many disruptions as possible.”

Back at the water department, Leeds says the good news is water use is going down. People are buying high efficiency appliances and practicing conservation.

“But how much is Kansas City going to grow? Are we going to be 20,000 people larger?” Leeds says.

Remember, the water department doesn’t have a crystal ball. It makes planning for the future that much harder.

This story is part of KCUR’s series called 30/30 Vision, in which we’re examining Kansas City’s past to reimagine its future.

Elle Moxley is a reporter for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.

Elle Moxley covered education for KCUR.
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