A city hall news event sought to counter a news story that highlighted problems with Wichita’s water supply, but it seemed more like a political campaign event.
In yesterday’s press briefing, Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell addressed concerns raised in a recent Wichita Eagle article regarding Wichita water infrastructure. 1
Longwell pushed back against the article’s reporting, perhaps the most concerning being: “Wichita’s entire water system has a ‘significant risk’ of failure and lacks redundancy, meaning if a major asset fails, it can’t be fixed without shutting the whole plant down.” The article also reported, “Deferred maintenance has piled up over the years.”
The mayor presented an infographic produced by the city showing steps the city has taken since 2011 to maintain existing water infrastructure and prepare for the future. (Curiously, this is available on the city’s Facebook page but not at wichita.gov, the city’s website.) According to him, the city has been managing the city’s water needs effectively.
This, however contradicts a statement the city council issued in 2015, when Longwell was mayor. As part of the Wichita-Sedgwick County Community Investments Plan, the city council concluded: “Decades of under-investment and deferred maintenance in Wichita’s water, sewer and stormwater infrastructure requires the City to be aggressive in protecting what assets it already has (especially replacing aging pipe infrastructure) and making future water and sewer facility enhancements to meet required treatment and discharge standards.” 2
(Of course, we could conclude that the statement and plan from 2015 doesn’t have any real meaning, which if true, causes me to wonder why we undertake these exercises.)
The mayor also addressed the 2014 proposed Wichita city sales tax, $250 million of which was earmarked for a water project. The mayor correctly explained that that money was not to repair existing infrastructure or build a new main water processing plant. Instead, it was to expand the Aquifer Storage and Recovery system and build an additional pipeline from it to the city. That would have provided what the city called “drought protection.”
It’s important for Longwell to explain that the 2014 sales tax, if it had passed, would not have addressed the issues with the current water plant. This is important because Longwell voted against the sales tax. If today’s voters thought the 2014 sales tax would have fixed the water plant and saw that Longwell voted against it, that might be a negative factor against Longwell.
Which brings us to the final point. The press conference was a thinly disguised campaign event for the mayor, conducted using city facilities and staff, complete with a cartoon-like infographic. If the information is important, the city should present it plainly, not in a cumbersome graphic spread three panels wide that the mayor can post on Facebook and Twitter.
Wichita Eagle reporting on this event is at Wichita on track for new water plant in 5 years, city says.
- 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. ↩
- Wichita-Sedgwick County Community Investments Plan. Approved by Wichita City Council on December 8, 2015. Available at https://www.wichita.gov/Planning/Pages/Comprehensive.aspx. ↩
Longwell is blowing smoke. He and the City Manager need to get together with whomever communicates with the public and describe exactly what’s happening with the water plant and what they intend to do about it immediately. To know that the plant was in dire straits since 2014 and not come up with a contingency plan in five years is really shocking. And for the city to spend more money on bike paths and a baseball stadium when few use or attend is just a waste. In the last couple of years when bike riders had their own lanes on the city streets, I’ve seen three bikers use them. Longwell told an audience recently held by the League of Women Voters he likes to ride his bike to restaurants–yeah, yeah, I want to see Longwell ride a bike. For the last five years, I’ve heard Longwell talk about all the money he’s saved the taxpayer and the city’s big contingency money. Would love to see the stats on those two things. It doesn’t matter, I’m not voting for him.
Finally, the city of Wichita is moving forward with a vital element for water supply for the city and the surrounding area. The water treatment plant and other water infrastructure did not drop to 99% poor condition in a short time. This is an old problem.
Mayor Longwell has energetically lead the city council and city staff to make progress throughout the city government. The mayor should be commended for his efforts to make progress in community safety, quality of life, and transportation. This water supply effort should be supported and moved ahead without delay. The water supply is vital to residences, commercial businesses, medical facilities, fire fighting, industry, and nearby customer cities. We cannot survive without water.
How we got to the point where the city is taking real action is not as important as getting it done. It is plain that an information campaign in response to a newspaper report based on 3,000 pages of documents obtained through an open records request is not transparency. Don’t expect transparency from this government. Not yet. Expect effective action.
The project team selected to build a new water treatment plant can do the job, if managed well. The city of Wichita must be fully engaged with the project team to observe and check the performance of the team. As a water systems engineer with a 40-year career in the Wichita area, I will say that this will not go well without good management and oversight. I know the firms on the team. Only one of the firms on the project team might possibly have experience in performing a project effort of this scope and complexity. Again, they can do this. Again, good management and oversight are essential. The capabilities of each firm will be stretched by this project. Could another project team do better? Probably so, but the leadership firm won’t be based in Wichita.
As for the cost, consider that Wichita residents built much of the water supply, transport, and treatment systems eighty years ago. It took vision and resolve to get that done. Major parts of those systems are still in use. Over three or four generations, the city government has not invested to maintain these systems. It will take vision and resolve to make the Wichita water systems what they should be. Roughly $500 million is the preliminary project cost. That may not be enough.
Yet, it must be done. Without delay.