Kansas City’s costly sewer projects take early steps toward success

Some sewer rehabilitation work, like this near East Meyer Boulevard and Cherry Street, can be done without disruptive digging in Kansas City’s neighborhoods.
Some sewer rehabilitation work, like this near East Meyer Boulevard and Cherry Street, can be done without disruptive digging in Kansas City’s neighborhoods.

You’ll hear it quite often from many Kansas Citians: Don’t spend my tax money on a new airport, expanded streetcar system or a replacement for Kemper Arena. Instead, pay attention to basic services like better sewers.

In reality, City Hall has heard that plea. The Kansas City Water Services Department is well on its way to spending billions of dollars on that exact priority.

The excellent goals include fixing the sewers so they don’t back up in basements as much and to prevent massive overflows during heavy rains that pollute nearby waterways.

Seven years ago this month, The Star’s Editorial Board began writing about a proposed 25-year plan to fix Kansas City’s aging sewer and stormwater systems. Since then, the Environmental Protection Agency and the courts have approved what in the end could be $4.5 billion to $5 billion worth of upgrades.

So far, the city has spent less than 3 percent of that money, but plenty of projects are in the pipeline. Here are a few highlights of the wastewater side of the equation; The Star will review proposed improvements in the water supply system in a future editorial.

▪ The average monthly residential sewer charge is on pace to quadruple in an 11-year span.

The charge was $25.62 a month five years ago, and it has risen to $46.60 in 2015. The City Council is on course this year to approve a 13 percent increase, taking the monthly sewer bill to $52.66.

After that, the water agency expects to ask for and get annual 13 percent hikes. The average monthly sewer bill is projected to reach $104.78 by mid-2021.

Keep in mind that water and stormwater charges also appear on monthly bills, and are roughly the same amount as current sewer charges.

▪ A large, $90 million storage tank — designed to contain storm overflows in south Kansas City — might be smaller and less expensive.

Johnson County officials are discussing whether to expand a treatment plant in Leawood. It would then handle some of the county’s wastewater that now goes to Kansas City to be treated. If the county makes the move, Kansas City would lose a customer but also have to deal with less wastewater.

▪ So-called green infrastructure projects are an early success, which is encouraging because they also can brighten the appearance of neighborhoods.

Porous sidewalks, small rain gardens and landscaped areas near curbs have been installed in parts of south Kansas City. Department director Terry Leeds says they are “meeting the goals of reducing water overflows.”

The city also is examining whether to pursue green infrastructure projects in the Town Fork Creek watershed in East Kansas City. That’s appropriate, but “grey” solutions of using pipes and storage tanks must be a priority if green projects— nice as they sound — are more expensive and less effective.

▪ A task force has looked at how the city could work with private property owners to reduce storm overflows.

The City Council will get a report on part of the plan in the next few weeks. The city wants to make sure homeowners are not contributing to the problem, for example, by connecting their sump pumps directly to the sanitary sewer system rather than allowing excess water to flow onto yards.

Overall, the city needs to continue pushing to reduce the amount of sewage getting into local waterways at the lowest possible cost.