Johnson County considers enlarging Leawood sewer plant

04/29/2014 5:53 PM

04/29/2014 5:53 PM

For the past few years, Johnson County residents have watched as Kansas Citians struggled with soaring sewer rates that were the result of federal water pollution rules.

But now Kansas City’s problems have become Johnson County’s. Officials here are grappling with the higher rates that Kansas City charges for water treatment to pay for its system improvements. Johnson County, which sent about 12 million gallons a day to treatment plants across the state line last year, is Kansas City’s biggest customer.

The result: Johnson County commissioners are now considering a huge expansion of a treatment plant in Leawood to handle that waste, rather than continuing to send it to Kansas City.

If that happens, the best estimates are that wastewater rates in Johnson County would at least double in the next 14 years.

The county is in the early stages of a $280 million redo of the Tomahawk Wastewater Treatment Plant near Leawood City Park. Next month engineers will look over proposals for a project that will take years to build.

If the commission decides to go through with it, a resident paying the median $27.05 every other month would be paying at least $54.10 in 2028, wastewater officials said.

Expensive though it is, the plant expansion might be the cheaper option. If the county does not expand its Tomahawk plant and continues to send water to Kansas City for treatment, those rates would double even faster — possibly by 2024, officials said.

“It’s almost a perfect storm of an aging system, customer demand, the cost of energy and EPA regulatory demands,” said Commissioner Michael Ashcraft. “Circumstances are pummeling us.”

Johnson County’s angst is intertwined with Kansas City’s. In 2010 city and federal regulators entered into a consent decree for a $2.5 billion program to fix an ongoing problem with sewer overflow. During occasional heavy rains, storm water would back up into manholes and basements, with the potential to mix in with the sanitary sewer system.

Now Kansas City is embarking on a plan to build two or three large storage tanks that would hold excess water during heavy rains, keeping the sanitary and storm sewers separate.

To pay for that, rates have had to go up, said Terry Leeds, director of Kansas City Water Services. Rates have already gone up more than 15 percent and are scheduled to continue to climb.

Last year, Johnson County paid about $12 million to have Kansas City treat some of its waste, said John O’Neil, county wastewater general manager.

Studies by the county wastewater department show that in the long run it would be cheaper to build out the Tomahawk plant and treat the water there, he said. It would also give the county control over its rates and make it less vulnerable to changes on the Kansas City side, as some county commissioners have pointed out.

But there are still some variables the commission is considering before giving the plan a final OK.

If the county could negotiate a much lower rate with Kansas City, that might give the county a bit more wiggle room on its decision, Ashcraft said, although he conceded that “the chances are very, very slim.”

There’s also the question of what type of plant expansion would be allowed. The plan getting the most interest from the commission would make all the improvements within the current treatment plant, rather than building storage tanks as Kansas City is doing.

But water department officials are not 100 percent sure that the auxiliary treatment without the storage tanks will be allowed by the EPA. In the past the agency has preferred the tanks. A recent decision in the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals allowed the type of overflow treatment Johnson County is considering. However, Johnson County is not in the 8th Circuit, so that decision is not binding here.

Adding storage tanks would add $80 million to the plant improvements and would likely mean tearing into nearby youth soccer fields. If the tanks are required, officials might have to rethink the whole idea, O’Neil said.

Whatever Johnson County decides also will affect Kansas City, said Leeds. If Johnson County goes ahead with the plant, Kansas City may not have to build one of the three storage tanks, and that would save money in the short term, Leeds said. Each tank costs about $80 million.

But that savings would not make up for losing the Water Services’ biggest customer years down the road, Leeds said. If Johnson County pulls out of the system, it would probably push rates even higher for Kansas City customers, he said.

So far the Johnson County Commission has reluctantly accepted that higher rates will be in the offing for wastewater customers for a variety of reasons. But they have not yet fully committed to the plant construction. The expansion is in the county’s capital improvement plan, with the first money being spent this year on project design.

Chairman Ed Eilert said the commission needs more information about permit costs and any potential changes in Kansas City’s rate system to decide whether the expansion will be cheaper in the long run.

“At this point we do not know,” he said.

Commissioner Ed Peterson said the expansion would have to be seriously considered.

“We are aggressively pursuing all options,” he said. “At this juncture it does look like there will be a significant cost.”

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