Five years ago, water main breaks gave new meaning to Kansas City’s motto of “city of fountains” — and not in a good way.
The city had 1,844 water main breaks in 2012, and City Manager Troy Schulte recalls water gushing everywhere, making it clear the city’s water infrastructure was falling apart.
So the city launched a comprehensive water main replacement program in 2013, and Schulte and other dignitaries gathered in a Northland neighborhood Monday to mark the 100th mile of new mains completed.
One hundred miles down. Just 2,700 miles to go.
It’s true that Kansas City has a huge network of water mains, 2,800 miles in all, that laid end-to-end would stretch from New York City to Los Angeles. The replacement program covers about 28 to 30 miles per year now, so it will still take 100 years to finish the job.
Schulte and others said the city is addressing the “worst of the worst” first and is making progress. The number of main breaks dropped to 814 in 2016.
“We’ve seen a 56 percent drop in just four years,” Schulte told the gathering.
Rebecca Sharp and her son Scotty watched and smiled as crews prepped the new 6-inch ductile iron pipe to be placed in front of their home in the 5100 block of North Cypress Avenue. The design work for this particular job was done by Trekk Design Group, and the contractor was Leath and Sons.
“It’s history in the making,” Rebecca Sharp said. “I know it’s necessary.”
Sharp said her block has had some main breaks, but the problem was even worse on nearby Vivion Road, where main breaks were a regular and disruptive occurrence. Vivion Road has now had its mains replaced from North Brighton Avenue to North Highland Avenue.
Water Services officials said projects have been completed or are underway all around the city. More information is at kcwaterservices.org/projects/current-projects.
The department has some mains that date from the late 1800s that are slated for replacement. But some of the worst pipes actually are younger and date from the 1950s and 1960s, when the quality of metal used wasn’t great. That’s why some of Kansas City’s inner ring suburban areas are getting attention before some of the oldest parts of town.
While Sharp appreciated the pipe replacement on her block, she noted that her water and sewer bills have tripled in recent years, to more than $100 per month for just two people. She said she realized the city needs to upgrade both its water and sewer infrastructure, but paying those costs is “a struggle.” That’s a refrain the city is hearing from more and more residents.
The cost of the water main replacement program, about $65 million so far, has been covered by water rate increases. Those rate increases were about 10 percent per year a few years ago, but are now increasing more slowly, at the rate of inflation.
The far more serious rate increases are on the sewer side, to pay for a multibillion-dollar sewer overhaul program that’s an unfunded mandate from the federal government.
The city is trying to find some rate relief on the sewer side and hopes to roll out possible options in the next few months.