Nearly every day for the past six months, a new water main break has made the headlines. Kansas City news organizations like KCTV5 roll video of the gushing water and blocked streets – then pass along the necessary boil orders.
KCTV5 wanted to explore this issue plaguing neighborhoods throughout Kansas City.
In mid-November, KCTV 5 filed a Missouri Open Records request with the Water Services Department for standard information about the exploding number of water main breaks. The data didn't exist and the city couldn't afford to compile it.
"We've been working with a lot less staff," Water Services Director Terry Leeds said. "We haven't had the resources to deal with that to monitor and keep track of it."
KCTV5 paid the city $850 to create the information for us – date and location of each break during the past two years as well as the cost to repair the break and the damage created by the break.
According to Leeds, Kansas City Water Services suffered more than 1,700 breaks in 2011 alone, 600 more than in an average year.
"It's been a tough year," Leeds acknowledged.
The tough times have extended into the homes of residents such as Michelle Cole. In a span of a little over seven weeks, she and her Northland neighbors have endured seven different water main breaks. Each time, Cole has scrambled to deal with the inconvenience and extra expense.
"You're spending money going out to dinner, said Cole. "You can't cook. You're wondering where the next shower is gonna come from!"
The city has yet to calculate the repair costs for the whack-a-mole like breaks traveling through Cole's neighborhood. But the data obtained by KCTV5 shows how expensive it can be to stop the spewing water and then restore streets and sidewalks to their previous states.
The average cost to repair a major water main break is $6,000. But that amount, which comes straight from your water bills, only covers the actual pipe. When you start adding in additional restoration costs, the numbers really shoot up.
"Water is a very powerful force," said Leeds. "We think about it being good to drink. That's very true, and obviously, it's what sustains our life is water. But when you put it under pressure and you have a break, you can cause damage very quickly."
For example, while the actual break at 7723 Ward Parkway cost $2,976.57 to fix, street repairs ate up another $90,236. The cost to fix the pipe at 9615 Holmes Rd was $3,616. Making this main road drivable again required another $129,266. The most expensive project in the past two years, is still going on at 10500 Wornall Rd. The data lists that pipe fix at $322. The water department shelled out a whopping $243,984 to restore the area and repave the road. But just last week, crews were back, tracking down a brand new leak.
The data reveals that in just the last two years, water main repairs and restorations have topped $10.6 million. That does not include the $1.1 million in claims paid out to residents whose homes and property have suffered additional damage. At this point, Leeds said raising rates is the only solution to this massive problem.
"We have undervalued water over the years and we're gonna pay the price for that as a city," he said.
As a result, customer bills are projected to go up 12 percent in May. The increase will raise an average $30 monthly bill by about $3.50.
While rate hikes are often unpopular, Cole says it's an investment she's ready and willing to make.
"I would be totally fine with paying more of a water bill to not have to wonder every day if I'm gonna have water or not."
The city has aging pipes. Ill constructed pipes that date to the post-World War II era help create the problem along with the city not increasing rates to pay for needed repairs.
The recent problems have been exacerbated by last year's hard winter then this summer's dry conditions. That has the earth pulling away from pipes, leading to breaks. The city has also had difficulty in recent years keeping one person in charge of the water department, delaying the creation of a water main master plan.
If you're lucky, the water main breaks in your neighborhood will stay on the city's side of the curb. The pipes under your yard and front door are just as old the ones under city streets. When they give way, you must foot the bill. It happened to Eddie Franco when a water main break filled the basement with raw sewage.
"They said you'd have to pay for it," he said.
The city has fixed the pipes it owns but says Franco must cover the cost of the pipes in the yard plus the sewage cleanup. The estimate to fix that mess was $75,000.
Leeds says the water department needs another year to create a water main master plan and determine which neighborhoods have the worst water mains and will get replacement pipe first.
In January, Bill Downey, who retired last summer as president of Kansas City Power and Light, began work as a consultant to turn the city's water services around. He is receiving $250 an hour.
Mayor Sly James addressed the city's water main issues in his budget proposal released Thursday afternoon. He said of the 1,400 breaks last year that 85 percent were fixed within 24 hours.
But he said for those who were without water for hours that "the 85 percent fixed in 24 hours is relatively meaningless" and didn't make up for the inconvenience. He said the city has 2,300 miles of water mains to maintain.
James recommended Thursday that the council issue revenue bonds to replace and repair the city's aging water system.
If you want to see how much the crisis at your curb cost, you can search through the data KCTV5 obtained at no cost. However, some numbers are missing and, as the city admitted, some are wrong.
Copyright 2012 KCTV (Meredith Corp.) All rights reserved.
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