Crews work to repair a water main break near 17th Street and Interstate 35.
Crews work to repair a 42-inch water main near 17th Street and Interstate 35 on Oct. 8. The pipeline break flooded a nearby neighborhood and caused schools to close, restaurants to limit service and residents to boil their water. (Matt Hennie/The Beacon)

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When a 36-hour boil advisory wreaked havoc in Wichita on Oct. 7 and 8, Alan King, the city’s public works director, wanted to make one thing clear. 

“This was a failure of the distribution system,” he said.

In other words, the boil advisory came about as the result of a water main break in the pipes that carry drinking water to more than half a million people in Wichita and eight surrounding municipalities — not because of the city’s 80-year-old water treatment plant. 

All of the water treatment plant is in poor or very poor condition, a 2017 study found. The same study found that 46% of the city’s water distribution pipes are in poor or very poor condition. 

A second water treatment plant — a $494.2 million project being built along 21st Street and Hoover Road — is expected to come online in 2024. But what is the city doing to prevent more pipes from bursting?

“We have a significant budget for pipe replacement,” King said. “We’ve jacked it up significantly.” 

Here’s a breakdown of the state of the pipes that carry Wichita’s drinking water, the system the city uses to repair and replace them — and how one slipped through the cracks.

The state of Wichita’s water main system

King said the condition of Wichita’s water distribution pipes is “not unusual for any water system in the United States.”

Joshua Roundy, associate professor in civil, environmental and architectural engineering at the University of Kansas, concurred. He pointed to an annual report from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). The Report Card for America’s Infrastructure gave national drinking water infrastructure a C-minus in 2021 and a D in 2020

“Our water infrastructure has been underfunded for a long time,” Roundy said.

In Wichita, about a third of the water mains are over 50 years old. Less than one-tenth of 1 percent are over 100 years old. The oldest dates to 1910.  

“We’re a fairly new system,” said Kara McCluskey, an associate engineering educator who teaches classes on water distribution systems at Wichita State University. “I know that seems fairly old, but some of the older cities have even older pipes than that.”

Water main pipes can last up to 150 years, depending on materials and environmental conditions, said Celine Hyer, a member of ASCE’s Committee on America’s Infrastructure and an author of a chapter on drinking water in the infrastructure report card. Roundy, however, noted that problems typically arise when pipes are around 100 years old.

King said water pipes in Wichita are made of various materials, including cast iron, concrete and plastic.

Over the past six years, Wichita’s water main system met a nationally recognized standard from the American Water Works Association (AWWA) for pipeline leaks and breaks half the time.

Wichita’s pipe replacement program

The city spends between $10 million and $11 million a year on water pipe replacement, King said — a much higher number than when he arrived in 2011. 

“Soon as the council became aware of how we stacked up against [the AWWA] benchmarks and the rest of the country, they made adjustments to the replacement,” King said.

The city’s 2022-31 Capital Improvement Program specifies $10.7 million for water main pipe replacements.

The pipe replacement program has two steps. First, the city takes stock of its 2,400 miles of water pipes using data on age, material and failure history to establish an approximate risk ranking for each pipe. The city last did this in 2017, King said. The ASCE’s Hyer said best practice is an annual assessment.

Next comes a boots-on-the-ground review of factors such as pipe erosion and connections. The city typically decides which pipes move to this step based on the number and frequency of breaks a line experiences.

“When we dig up a pipe to repair it, while we’re there, we look at the condition of the pipe,” King said. 

The city typically weighs the cost of continuing to repair a pipeline against the cost of replacing it entirely.

King pointed out that small pipelines, which carry water through neighborhoods, are more frequently replaced than large pipelines, which typically take water from the treatment plant to areas of major water use. 

That’s largely because of how few breaks large pipes experience — only six since 1996, according to King. The break that caused the boil advisory earlier this month was one of them. 

When large pipes do break, King said, the city typically finds that the problem is with the environment around the area of the break rather than the pipe itself.  

How did one break upend the whole system?

The pipeline that broke earlier this month — causing schools to close, restaurants to limit service and residents to boil their water — was not included in the city’s replacement list, King said. 

The 42-inch pipe was installed in 1969 near 17th Street North and Interstate 35 and had no history of failure. 

“If it hadn’t been for where it was in the system, you wouldn’t even have known about (the pipe break),” King said. 

Though the city is still running tests on the pipe that failed, King said a theory is that road salt runoff from the interstate corroded the line.

King said the city doesn’t track soil corrosiveness across the entire water main system. But the city may test the soil in places with conditions similar to that around the broken pipe to update its modeling of the water system.

The city’s major change going forward is to commit to powering the water system with its own diesel generators during storms to prevent outages. King believes a blip in the electric grid triggered the initial pressure change that led to the main break.

Limited state oversight

Whose standards is Wichita living up to in regard to keeping the water main system up to date? 

Essentially, no one’s. 

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment does not regulate the replacement or repair of water pipelines. While some states have “asset management” requirements that ask water utilities to create plans for replacing and inspecting pipes, neither the federal government nor Kansas does, Hyer said.

Instead, the city voluntarily adopts the national standards from the American Water Works Association.

Wichita’s water utility is required to submit a water master plan to KDHE and is subject to inspections from the agency every three years. These inspections “focus on infrastructure that can be seen, operations and maintenance records and water quality reports,” wrote KDHE spokesperson Matthew Lara in an email.

King noted that KDHE “is an outcome-based organization” and that “we are required to meet certain outcomes — water quality, those sort of things. How the individual water provider does that is up to them.”

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Hack covers local government for The Wichita Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member.