If Kansas City residents with soaring sewer bills are wondering where all that money is going, they’re about to find out.
Think storage tanks. Gigantic tanks, the size of a football field and four stories tall. Each costing at least $80 million.
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Don’t worry. These won’t be plopped down in Brookside or some other residential neighborhood. They’ll likely be in an industrial area near 87th Street and Prospect and may not even be visible from U.S. 71.
But they’ll be the first major investment in the city’s $2.5 billion federally-mandated program to stop sewage and stormwater pollution from flowing into the city’s rivers and streams.
Councilman Russ Johnson, chairman of the council’s Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, likened the project’s complexity and cost to the highly publicized $100 million plan for downtown streetcars.
Johnson calculated that each $80 million tank would cost $300 per Kansas City household, with commercial properties also picking up part of the tab.
Just this month, the council approved a $305,000 contract with Black and Veatch to begin evaluating options for storing up to 65 million gallons of wastewater. It was a routine contract, but actually is the start of something massive that will dominate the first five years of the city’s 25-year sewer program.
“We’re basically paying for brain power right now,” Johnson said. “We haven’t figured out exactly how to do this yet.”
Black and Veatch is expected to come back in the next 90 days with a more detailed plan. There’s a chance the company will recommend a shallow tunnel under Swope Park rather than above-ground storage. The shallow tunnel idea would proceed only if it meets the required schedule and budget.
But for now, tanks near 87th Street and just west of Prospect are the preferred option, said Ron Coker, a Burns and McDonnell vice president who is project manager for the sewer overflow program.
Coker said regulators wanted Kansas City to begin the 25-year plan with this phase to alleviate pollution into the Blue River, which is south and east of the proposed storage area. Currently, when Kansas City gets hit with torrential rains, the area’s sewers are overwhelmed and manholes overflow with contaminated water that eventually reaches the river.
The tanks would provide storage until the system dried out and wastewater could be returned to pipes and sent to the treatment plant at 7300 Hawthorne Road.
“They wanted some level of control in this location first,” Coker said.
The first phase of construction, which must be completed by the end of 2016, calls for one $80 million precast concrete tank, storing 20 million gallons of rainwater and sewage. It would be 200 to 375 feet in diameter and about 85 feet tall.
The project’s second phase, from 2016 to 2021, could involve two more tanks, together holding 45 million more gallons. But whether Kansas City builds two or three tanks will depend in large part on Johnson County because Kansas City currently treats about one-fourth of Johnson County’s wastewater.
Johnson County is just completing its own analysis and expects a consultant’s report by the end of June, said John O’Neil, Johnson County Wastewater general manager.
Like Kansas City customers, Johnson County has seen its wholesale sewer charges from Kansas City increasing in recent years by 10 percent or more. Johnson County is weighing whether to upgrade treatment facilities on its own side of the state line but doesn’t yet know whether that would be cost-effective, O’Neil said.
If Johnson County treats more of its own sewage, that could reduce the number of storage tanks needed in Kansas City, Coker said.
But if Kansas City builds all three tanks, it is expected to cost more than $275 million in design, construction and pump station improvements.
There is plenty of room for the storage tanks at the proposed 33.5-acre site, Coker said, but it poses other challenges.
It is an old undocumented landfill west of U.S. 71, believed to contain mostly construction debris. The land is owned partly by Kansas City, partly by a railroad trust and partly by Kansas City Power & Light. The preference would be to build on the city portion of the land, if possible.
Coker said consultants will determine the feasibility of building on top of the landfill and strategies for shoring up the foundation.
The closest residential neighborhood is near 85th Street, between Prospect and Paseo. The Bannister Federal Complex is south and west of the proposed site. Coker said odor control would be incorporated into the project.
Coker acknowledged Kansas City residents may be frustrated that they are spending so much money without an attractive amenity to show for it.
“That’s part of the challenge of this whole program,” he said. “You don’t really see the problem. You don’t see the solution. All you see is the bill.”
And those bills have been mounting. Kansas City sewer rates rose 15 percent in 2010 and 2011. They are scheduled to go up 17 percent this year, then 15 percent for two years and then 13 percent for a few years after that.
Coker said Kansas City doesn’t have a choice, and faces regulatory requirements that have hit more than 100 other communities, including Johnson County and Kansas City, Kan.
“This is all driven by federal clean water legislation,” he said.
To provide some visible benefits for all the spending, the City Council required its overflow control plan to include some “green” solutions, such as rain gardens, stair-stepped gardens, landscaped curb extensions and porous pavement that would upgrade certain neglected neighborhoods.
A $9.2 million, 100-acre pilot “green” project in the Marlborough area, near 75th Street and Troost, is nearing completion and so far appears to be alleviating overflows in rainy events, Coker said.
But Johnson pointed out that much of the project will still involve conventional engineering techniques used in other cities, such as massive storage and tunnels. Residents won’t have to deal with every block being disrupted.
The latter phases of Kansas City’s 25-year plan call for an 11-mile long tunnel in the Northland and shorter tunnels south of the Missouri River.
“The vast majority of the public believes we’ll tear up every street,” Johnson said. “That’s not the case.”