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Wichita water planning in 2014, and now

In 2014 the City of Wichita advised spending millions on a water project, but it wasn’t for the main water treatment plant replacement, and it wasn’t financed with debt.

The city tells us it has been planning for a new water plant for many years. This summer the Wichita Eagle reported: “Until recently, not much has been done about building a new plant. It was first identified as a need for the city in 1993. Two years later, Wichita bought land for it near 21st and Zoo Boulevard. But the city didn’t start searching for construction funding until after the assessment in 2017.” 1

In 2014, however, the city’s attention was focused, at least partly, on water issues. But it wasn’t the main water treatment plant that was of concern.

Instead, the city was worried about drought protection and the conservation measures that might be imposed during an extended drought. In July 2014, the city prepared a document titled “Strategic Plan Implementation Timetable.” 2 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

While these are vague and open to interpretation, there’s nothing on this list like “Secure funding to replace our aging main water treatment plant.”

The city’s solution that it recommended to Wichitans was expansion of the Aquifer Storage and Recharge (ASR) system. This is a project north of Wichita that takes water from the Little Arkansas River, treats it, and injects it into wells in the Equus Beds. That’s an underground aquifer that, along with Cheney Reservoir, supplies Wichita’s water treatment plant. 3

It was planned that by filling the Equus Beds with river water, that would be water Wichita could draw upon in time of need, like during an extended drought.

To pay for ASR expansion, the city asked Wichitans to vote on a city sales tax. It would be an additional one cent per dollar, last for five years, and was projected to raise $400 million. Of that, $250 million was planned for ASR expansion. Other sales tax monies would fund economic development, transit, and street repairs.

Voters did not approve the sales tax, with 62 percent voting against it. Since then, there hasn’t been much talk about the ASR project.

With that history, we should ask this question: When the city was concerned about drought protection in 2014, was it also concerned about the condition of the main water treatment plant?

While the city says it has been planning for the main treatment plant’s replacement, that didn’t seem to be evident in 2014. A review of city documents, news reports, and memory finds no mention of the upcoming need for a new main water treatment plant. All the attention was on ASR and the need for drought protection, not basic water treatment and supply.

I think this means one of two things: The main water treatment plant wasn’t a concern or priority in 2014, no matter what the city says now.

Or, if the main water treatment plant was in the planning stages at the same time the city was recommending spending $250 million on a different water project, we have to ask why the city didn’t tell us that?

Hiding the need for a new plant, if that’s what the city did, would have been a grand deception. The city should have told voters this in 2014: “We recommend you spend $250 million on the ASR expansion project, and oh by the way, we also need to spend twice that much on a new main treatment plant in a few years.”

But the city didn’t tell us that. 4

Currently, the city tells us, “Our current water treatment facility is 80 years old and is in need of replacement.” 5

Well, in 2014 the plant was 75 years old. Wasn’t it foreseeable that the plant needed replacement then?

There’s also this: The expanded ASR plant would not have worked without a functioning main water treatment plant, as that’s where ASR water goes. In fact, the city planned to spend $86,579,022 of sales tax proceeds to build a parallel pipeline from the ASR facility to the existing main water treatment plant.

Paying for water

Click for larger.

In 2014, the city recommended against debt as a means of paying for the ASR project. A city document advised, “The use of sales tax funding for the project would save the community $221 million in financing costs over 20 years.”

Debt was discouraged. Paying now, through the sales tax, was advised.

So, what has changed? Is debt now good, simply because the city believes it can participate in a low-interest federal loan?

In 2014, the city advised raising $250 million for water through a sales tax. The entire sales tax that the city proposed — one cent per dollar for five years — would raise $400 million, which is pretty close to the bill for the new main water treatment facility.

If a sales tax for water was good in 2014, why not now? Especially considering that the 2014 water project was non-essential, while the need for a new main water treatment plant is seen as vital to the region’s future.

A sales tax of one cent per dollar for six years would raise $480 million, based on the projections used in 2014. It would likely raise more now. Is this an option the city should consider?

Then, let’s wonder who to hold accountable for this not being an issue in 2014.


Notes

  1. 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.
  2. City of Wichita. Strategic Plan Implementation Timetable. July 22, 2014. Archived on Google Drive here.
  3. Weeks, Bob. For Wichita, water supply decisions loom. Available at https://wichitaliberty.org/wichita-government/wichita-water-supply-decisions-loom/.
  4. Weeks, Bob. In Wichita, revision of water history. Available at https://wichitaliberty.org/wichita-government/wichita-revision-of-water-history/.
  5. City of Wichita. Available at https://wichita.gov/pwu/nwwtf/Pages/default.aspx.
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