In 2014 Wichita voters rejected a sales tax which would have provided $250 million to spend on a water project. What were the city’s concerns?
A recent Wichita Eagle article has ignited some revising of history regarding Wichita’s water infrastructure. 1 The article is grim, starting with, “Next time water comes out of your tap, don’t take it for granted. Wichita’s only water treatment plant could fail at any moment.” The article reports on the poor condition of Wichita’s existing water infrastructure, particularly the central water plant.
Wichita recently dealt with spending on a water project. That was in 2014, when the city asked voters to decide on a one cent per dollar sales tax for five years. Of the estimated $400 million the tax would raise, $250 million was earmarked towards water infrastructure. Since voters did not endorse the tax, some have blamed voters for the city’s current problems regarding water infrastructure.
Here, for example, is a social media exchange on Monday. The first person wrote, referring to Wichita Public Works Director Alan King, “Mr King is only now sounding a warning when he knew 8 years ago there was a problem?”
A second person responded: “Wrong Wrong Wrong. King has been yelling about this since he got here. Remember the temporary sales tax for the water where the citizens obeyed the Billionaire and his million dollars that said we can take the risk?”
To understand the errors in the second person’s comment, we need to understand the meaning of “for the water” and “the risk.” City documents have the answer.
A Wichita city white paper from May 2014 cites a community survey, concluding, “Wichitans have ranked a reliable water supply as their most important priority.” 2 The city interpreted citizens’ concerns are requiring protection from drought: “Protecting water sources during periods of drought is an important part of long-term water supply planning.” The paper presented “two options meet the goal of providing water for community growth and drought protection.” One option was using water from El Dorado Reservoir, and the second was expanding the ASR system. This paper does not mention the condition of existing water infrastructure.
On May 27, 2014 City Manager Robert Layton presented to the city council a “Strategic Plan Follow Up,” providing information about the possible uses of the proposed city sales tax. 3 For water issues, the only consideration was drought protection.
In July 2014, the city prepared a document titled “Strategic Plan Implementation Timetable.” 4 Regarding water, the activity needed was:
1. Develop a plan that addresses:
A. New water sources
B. Conservation strategies
C. Reuse opportunities for industry
D. Emphasize water as a priority with the State and Congressional delegation
E. Work with area communities to ensure water is also a priority for them
The long-term objective for water was: “Secure sufficient capacity from two identified options to provide water that supports the long-term growth of Wichita while protecting water users from future droughts. Implement cost-effective conservation strategies that complement water source capacity.”
Under measurements of success there were these items:
Year of final protection in a 1% drought without additional conservation efforts (target is 2030).
Variance in firm yield compared to demand in 2060 (target is 0%).
Volume of water treated (target is 20.8 billion gallons per year).
Annual water reductions from conservation programs (target is 0.35%).
Water conservation program cost to achieve water reduction goal (target is $300,000 annually).
None of this material mentions the condition of existing water infrastructure.
In September 2014 the city published a document titled “Water Supply Plan: The Proposed 1-cent Sales Tax.” 5 under “Plan Summary,” the document states: “Sales tax revenue would fund a new water supply, through Aquifer Storage and Recovery (ASR) improvements. This new supply would reduce the impact of any future drought and would support job growth.”
Later, the document says the plan does the following:
Pulls more water from the Little Arkansas River
Constructs new storage basins
Further utilizes existing treatment plant capacity
Stores treated water underground where it doesn’t evaporate
Builds an additional pipeline
The document clarifies that the “additional pipeline” is a “parallel pipeline” from the ASR plant to the central water plant.
An information sheet prepared for citizens said the same and warned of the costs of borrowing to pay for these facilities. 6
A lengthier presentation prepared for voters by the city held this:
Demand for water is expected to increase by more than seven billion gallons per year by 2060. A new water supply is needed to meet this demand. If the community should experience a significant drought, residents would face severe water restrictions.” 7
From these city documents, we can understand the error in the second commenter’s remarks. In the context of 2014, taxing and spending “for the water” meant expansion of supply, not maintenance of existing assets.
Further, in 2014 “the risk” that was to be addressed was the risk of water use restrictions in case of an extended drought. The risk of basic water plant infrastructure failing was not considered or addressed in the city’s plan for spending $250 million on a water project.
- Swaim, Chance. Wichita’s water plant: ‘Every hour that thing is running, it could fail.’ Wichita Eagle, July 21, 2019. Available at https://www.kansas.com/news/politics-government/article232826482.html. ↩
- City of Wichita. Water Supply Planning. May 13, 2014. Archived on Google Drive here. ↩
- Layton, Robert. Strategic Plan Follow Up. May 27, 2014. Archived on Google Drive here. ↩
- City of Wichita. Strategic Plan Implementation Timetable. July 22, 2014. Archived on Google Drive here. ↩
- City of Wichita. Water Supply Plan: The Proposed 1-cent Sales Tax. September 2014. Archived on Google Drive here. ↩
- City of Wichita. Proposed 1 cent sales tax. Archived on Google drive here. ↩
- City of Wichita. Plans & Background on Proposed 1 cent Sales Tax. Archived on Google Drive here. ↩