A single KC water leak symbolizes a bigger problem
The Kansas City Star
(Update: A water services crew arrived at the scene at 8 a.m. Wednesday. As of noon, workers had dug up the street and yanked out the fire hydrant and the pipe attached to it.)
The stream flows day and night, its waters clear and refreshing. In the quiet hours, you can hear it burbling.
In a rustic setting, this would be delightful. In the Waldo neighborhood of Kansas City, it is a source of consternation.
The water originates from a valve in the street. It has been bubbling away since last Wednesday, beginning just after workers dismantled an adjacent fire hydrant and replaced some parts.
The stream follows a natural path to the gutter, down a slow incline and into the stormwater drain at the end of the block. Neighbors gaze wistfully at the flowing water, gallons and gallons of it, and speculate about ways to divert its flow onto their parched lawns. No one has figured out how to make that work.
Residents have called the Kansas City Water Services Department and the city’s 311 complaint center and received various responses: That work on the fire hydrant is not yet complete; that someone would be around any time to fix the problem; that the leak had been assigned a low priority on the water department’s work list.
On the second day of the leak, a worker showed up and placed a barricade in front of the source. After that no one was seen until Tuesday, when workers arrived to eyeball the problem and told neighbors it might be fixed overnight or the next day. A water department spokesman told an editorial writer it should be fixed within the next 10 days.
This summer, with its soil-heaving drought and brutal temperatures, has exposed the massive infrastructure challenges facing Kansas City government. The city is on the hook to pay for a $2.5 billion federally mandated sewer upgrade project. But it is hemorrhaging money just trying to keep up with its separate and also decrepit water system, much of which was installed prior to World War II.
There is not enough money to replace the water supply system. Staff cutbacks have even diminished routine maintenance. And so the department operates in continuous crisis mode, striving to fix water main breaks that occur on a near-daily basis.
A valve leak doesn’t usually cause the drop in pressure and interruption in water service that comes from a severe water main break. And so such leaks are assigned a lower priority, department spokeswoman Colleen Doctorian said.
That is understandable. But the past few months have shown that water is a precious commodity. To see it wasted on a 24-hour basis is a frustrating illustration of the city’s inadequacies.
The water department has contracted for a valve “exercising and maintenance” program, whereby workers will check out the aging structures and replace parts or all if necessary, Doctorian added. Apparently “exorcising” isn’t an option.
So we’ll hope the maintenance program provides some short-term relief. For more permanent solutions, the city is waiting for a report by an outside consultant — retired Kansas City Power & Light executive Bill Downey. There are no easy fixes, but elected officials and citizens must get moving on a longstanding problem that is getting worse by the day.
In the meantime, only the pets are happy. On the Waldo street, dogs and cats lap at the water as it bubbles from the valve. And a precious resource washes away.