Children poisoned. Mud-colored drinking water. Could the ongoing water crisis in Flint, Michigan, happen in Kansas City?
That’s highly unlikely, say local water officials.
In Kansas City, millions of gallons of water flow every day through 2,800 miles of pipes. It comes from the muddy Missouri River, but after several stages of treatment at the Kansas City Water Services plant, it is clean and safe to drink — “polished” to perfection, to use the vernacular of the people who treat it.
Anytime something goes wrong at a water utility anywhere in the country “it makes us look at ourselves, because we are responsible for several hundred thousands of people every day who use our water and drink our water,” said Mike Klender, manager of the plant and a 17-year employee there. “I feel very confident that we’re putting out an excellent product.”
But the tragedy in Flint has amped up the conversation about a different water problem facing American cities, including Kansas City: aging water mains that in some places date back to the 19th century.
The majority of Kansas City’s water mains were installed in the 1890s - cast iron and very brittle. When metal became scarce and expensive during World War II, all the “good stuff,” as one New York water official said, was needed to make tanks. So cities began installing water mains made from cheaper metal.
“I call that the junk pipe era,” said Terry Leeds, director of Kansas City Water Services and a board member of the National Association of Clean Water Agencies. “And it took them about 30 years to get that right.”
Kansas City hit its watershed in 2012 when the city racked up a record number of water main breaks - more than 1,850 water main breaks. “The city of fountains had a bunch of extra fountains,” said Leeds.
The next year, Kansas City began an extensive water main replacement program with a goal of replacing 28 miles of pipe every year. The goal is that they last for the next 100 years.
In Flint, the decision to change the city’s water source to save money led to improperly treated water from the contaminated Flint River flowing through and leaching lead from aging water mains.
Those pipes are so old across the nation that the American Society of Civil Engineers - which has slapped the country’s infrastructure with an abysmal D+ grade, - estimates that a water main breaks every two minutes in the United States.
“We have a buried problem that no one sees,” said Leeds.
“We have an aging infrastructure in this country. That infrastructure has a life span and now we’re seeing a lot of cities are facing the end of that life.”
By one estimate, 44 percent of America’s water infrastructure is considered on life support.
On Thursday alone, the online Water Main Break Clock showed that water main breaks closed streets and shut off water to homes and businesses in Washington, D.C., Detroit, Honolulu and Hoboken, N.J..
Some estimates suggest that about 1.7 trillion gallons of water are wasted every year in the United States because of old, broken and leaky pipes.
The problems in more than 700,000 miles of pipes carrying water beneath American cities look like this:
▪ The pipes under New York cities and towns, some of the oldest in the country, are failing quickly, alarmingly so. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates the fix will cost New York $22 billion over the next 20 years; state officials expect that tab to be closer to $40 billion.
▪ In Portland, Maine - the state’s largest metro area - some of the city’s water mains date to nearly the Civil War. The restaurants, shops and businesses along the city’s bustling Commercial Street get their water from a cast iron water main installed in 1883.
▪ In Evansville, Indiana, water main breaks in the city’s 600 miles of cast iron pipes have risen since 2011. The pipes are more than 90 years old. “Hopefully the public has heard me say repeatedly that we have a really old infrastructure here, really old pipes,” the city’s utility director said at a meeting outlining a proposed rate hike to pay for replacements.
▪ A group of Chicago residents filed a class-action lawsuit against the city claiming that construction and street work done near and around the city’s aging lead water pipes have increased the risk of contaminated water.
In a January 2016 survey, the nation’s mayors said they are very worried about their cities’ old infrasctures. Roads, mass transit and water topped their list of priorities.
Lawmakers, too, have sounded the alarm in the aftermath of Flint. The proposed Sustainable Water Infrastructure Act aims to stimulate billions in private-sector money to pay for the large-scale repairs and upgrades needed for state water systems around the country.
Even though water mains around the country are old and need replacing, the nation’s drinking water by most accounts has not suffered. Excluding Flint, diseases and other catastrophic problems caused by drinking water have been rare.
When Kansas City’s Klender first heard about Flint’s contaminated water he figured the lead contamination didn’t come from the water source but had to be from the fixtures or the service lines.
“They had a lot of lead service lines,” said Leeds. “That was a favorite material (to use) in some cities. Kansas City is fortunate. We don’t have lead service lines.”