In Wichita, the phased approach to water supply can save a bundle

In 2014 the City of Wichita recommended voters spend $250 million on a new water supply. But since voters rejected the tax to support that spending, the cost of providing adequate water has dropped, and dropped a lot.

The events surrounding the need for a new water supply is a troubling episode in the history of Wichita government. During the prelude to the November 2014 election, citizens were presented with a gloomy scenario that could be fixed only with a sales tax and the spending of $250 million. After voters said no to that, new plans emerged that are much less expensive. Lily Tomlin once said “No matter how cynical you become, it’s never enough to keep up.” This episode shows Wichita city leaders — both in and out of government — reinforcing the truth of Tomlin’s observation.

On December 1, 2015, the Wichita City Council held a workshop on the topic “Phased Approach for New Water Supply.”1 Alan King, Director of Public Works and Utilities, was the presenter. King emphasized that the impetus for a new water supply was for drought protection: “We presently have enough water with our current water resources to last us through our planning period of 2060, without drought.”

He continued: “When we come and talk to you about additional water resources, it is really only for one purpose, and that is drought protection. If there was no drought, we have no need. The water resources that we come in and are talking to you about, the only value they have for us is in drought protection.”

But a city document leading up to the sales tax election presented a different scenario. It threatened a lack of water for even residential use: “Building a new supply, along with conservation efforts, is the lowest cost option for providing sufficient water through 2060. Significant conservation will be needed if the current supplies are the sole sources of water for the coming decades; sever [sic] conservation requirements could be harmful to local businesses and quality of life. Adding a new water supply would provide enough water for future growth for the community’s residential, commercial, and industrial base.”2

This is an important point. We have sufficient water except for a period of extended drought. Even in that case, there is sufficient water for residential, commercial, and industrial use. The purpose of a new water supply is to avoid restrictions on outdoor watering, and in the most extreme drought, a savings of 15 percent of indoor water usage.

In his December presentation to the council, King presented several phases that the city can take. The first three have no cost, and King said these are underway.

After that, the city can spend $23 million for new wells and rehabilitation of existing wells at the ASR site.

After that, there is the possibility of “operational credits,” which involve a change to state regulations. If the state approves, the city can receive credits for sending ASR water directly to Wichita instead of recharging it in the Equus Beds. If not approved, the city could spend $47.2 million for new recharge wells in 2022. If these wells are built, the cost rises to $70.2 million. (On January 22 King made a presentation to the Equus-Walnut Regional Advisory Committee on this topic.3)

Phased Approach for New Water Supply. Click for larger.
Phased Approach for New Water Supply. Click for larger.
There is also the matter of the parallel pipeline. The existing pipeline from the Equus Beds and ASR to the city’s downtown water plant is old and won’t support higher rates of water transmission. The proposed parallel pipeline provides not only redundancy of a major part of our water infrastructure, but also increased capacity. The cost of this, estimated in 2014 at $86 million, was included in the $250 million price tag for ASR expansion. If the parallel pipeline cost is added to the previous phase costs, the cost rises to either $109 million or $156.2 million, depending on the fate of the operational credits regulation reform.

Either way, the cost is much less than the $250 million the city asked voters to consider in November 2014. And I think I’m being charitable of motives when I say “consider.” The clear and revealed preference of the city council and the city’s political class was passage of the sales tax, meaning the city would spend $250 million to achieve something the city now says can be provided for $109 million or $156.2 million. (Well, everyone except then-city council member and now-mayor Jeff Longwell, but his vote against placing the sales tax on the ballot was a naked political calculation.)

In information the city presented to voters in the run up to the November 2014 election, the city promised large water bill increases if the sales tax vote failed, writing: “If a new water supply is funded only through water rate increases, the capital cost portion of the rate will increase an estimated 24%. This is in addition to anticipated annual rate increases.”4

Possible water bill increases. Click for larger.
Possible water bill increases. Click for larger.
King’s 2015 presentation to the council showed increases of nine percent for residential, commercial, and industrial customers.5

Citizens ought to wonder what lessons may be learned from this. Furthermore, I don’t believe there has been any coverage of this in the city’s mainstream news media. That is a problem, too. For more on this problem, see Wichita Eagle, where are you?


Notes

  1. City of Wichita workshop. Phased Approach for New Water Supply. Video available at https://youtu.be/mNQ26-VZBSA.
  2. Building A Better Future: A Proposed Sales Tax for Basic Services, City of Wichita, June 13, 2014. Available at http://www.wichita.gov/Government/Departments/Finance/FinancialDocuments/Sales%20Tax%20Proposal%20for%20Basic%20Services.pdf.
  3. Equus-Walnut Regional Advisory Committee Meeting Notes. Available at http://www.kwo.org/RACs/2016_RAC%20Notes/doc_EQW_Min_January_012216_mu.pdf.
  4. Plans & Background on Proposed 1¢ Sales Tax, City of Wichita, 2014. Available at https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B97azj3TSm9MS0lCQncxQkp4ODg/.
  5. Phased Approach for New Water Supply, Presentation to Wichita City Council, December 1, 2015, page 30. Available at http://wichita.gov/Government/Council/Agendas/2015-12-01%20Phased%20Approach%20for%20New%20Water%20Supply.pdf.

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