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Kansas City Water Customers Are Paying To Finally Update A 100-Year-Old Sewer System

Lisa Rodriguez
KCUR 89.3
This stormwater pond near 81st and Troost in Kansas City, Missouri, collects rainwater, diverting its flow from the sewer system. It's one of several projects designed to alleviate pressure on the city's outdated sewers.

It’s been one of the wettest years on record in Kansas City. With climate change, the likelihood of heavy rainfall is expected to increase, as are flash floods. And cities are starting to realize their infrastructure is not up to snuff. 

Kansas City faced that reality about 10 years ago, when the Environmental Protection Agency mandated the city replace its 100-year-old sewer system after multiple violations of the Clean Water Act.

Kansas City water customers are a $4.5 billion hook for the initiative, which the city is calling the Smart Sewer Program. To take the pressure off the sewer system and avoid replacing all of it, architects and engineers with KC Water have been incorporating some green projects, but the work is expensive and money is tight.

Credit National Weather Service
2019 has been one of the wettest years on record in Kansas City. Climate scientists say the frequency of heavy rain events is increasing.

The sewer problem

Kansas City has two types of sewer systems — separate and combined.

The oldest parts of Kansas City, built before 1950 (approximately from Missouri River south to 85th Street, and State Line Road east to Interstate 435), have a combined sewer system. That means stormwater from rain and sewage from homes all flow through one pipe.

Lisa Treese, a landscape architect for KC Water, said it works fine — if you don’t get a lot of rain. 

But consider a year like 2019, when by May, we’d deviated way above the norm when it comes to annual precipitation. It’s a trend, according to Doug Kluck, a regional climate services director for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

“(There’s been) more rainfall on an annual basis … and the frequency of heavy rainfall events also has increased since the 1950s for sure,” Kluck said.  

And when there’s a heavy rain, Treese explained, “it flows across lots of surfaces that can't soak in water, like parking lots and roads and roofs. That quickly fills up that pipe that’s supposed to carry the sewage and the stormwater.”

The combined sewage builds up pressure and has to be released somewhere, she said, ideally not into homes or basements or on the city’s streets. Instead, that mix of stormwater and sewer ends up in a creek, stream or river. 

One goal of the Smart Sewers program is to reduce those overflows. But pulling out and replacing every pipe in Kansas City would be too expensive, so architects like Treese are implementing green infrastructure projects. 

How to be rain-ready

Kansas City’s Marlborough neighborhood is in a watershed area, meaning it has two overflow points into the Blue River.

Credit Courtesy / Diane Hershberger
Diane Hershberger
This strip between 81st and 82nd Streets on Troost was demolished to make way for a green space.

Here, there’s an 11-acre site at 81st Street and Troost Avenue that used to be an abandoned lot with an empty strip mall. It’s now home to a Smart Sewers green park with a natural wetland pond.

“Before this happened, it was all overgrown with honeysuckle and shrub and along the street was a really disgusting commercial space,” said Diane Hersherger with the Marlborough Community Coalition.

When it rains, the water collects in a pond at the center of this park instead of shooting straight into the sewers. Wild, native vegetation will create a spongy soil that holds and cleans stormwater before it flows back into the river. And permeable pavement lets the water sink into the ground rather than flow down the street.

Credit Lisa Rodriguez / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
This 11-acre park in south Kansas City is one way KC Water hopes to keep sewage separate from stormwater.

Plus, the community obtained funding to build a little amphitheater on one corner of the park and a playground on the other. 

“So it will be a really great — a really great — asset,” Hershberger said.

Elsewhere in the neighborhood, the city planted small rain gardens of native grasses and shrubs along residential streets. In addition to collecting stormwater, the gardens have the added effect of slowing traffic. 

But not everything has been perfect. Maintenance of some of the green spaces falls to residents who never asked for them. And building the park was a nightmare for nearby residents like Alvina Krusinsky. She said all the commotion shook her home.

“Every day it was get up, pick up and clean up the things that had fallen, because that was a lot of work they did,” said Krusinsky, who is still trying to get contractors to fix parts of her home and car that she said were damaged.

Even through all that, Krusinsky said she’s glad the park is here: “I'm happy about it because it's something I firmly believe in.”

Will it help?

Aside from two projects currently in the works, Treese said, KC Water has nearly fulfilled the EPA’s green infrastructure requirements. Still, she said, there are low-lying areas across the city that in the past had a creek, but were covered up by development.

If money were no object, she said she would love to replicate green zones across the city. 

“We do have a lot of opportunities to implement green infrastructure in Kansas City that could really help us be more resilient down the line,” Treese added.

The issue is finding the money: With a strapped city budget and already high water bills, more green solutions like these are still on the wishlist.

Throughout the month of November, KCUR is taking a hard look at how climate change is affecting (or will affect) the Kansas City metro region.

Lisa Rodriguez is a reporter and the afternoon newscaster for KCUR 89.3. Follow her on Twitter @larodrig.

Slow news days are a thing of the past. As KCUR’s news director, I want to cut through the noise, provide context to the headlines, and give you news you can use in your daily life – information that will empower you to make informed decisions about your neighborhood, your city and the region. Email me at lisa@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @larodrig.
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