By Kevin Westerling,
Kansas City’s Smart Sewer program represents the nation’s first federal consent decree to include green infrastructure solutions in the reduction of wastewater overflows, as well as the city’s largest infrastructure investment to date. Projects that include the words “first” and “largest” do not come along without the strong leadership of a “Water Champion” such as Special Assistant City Manager Andy Shively, PE, who shares his experience and expertise in this Q&A.
When Shively was the chief engineering officer in Kansas City, MO, featured in a Water Online article on the city’s data management initiative, he stated: “I am in the business of legacy building.”
He was probably more right than he knew, although he wasn’t referring to his personal legacy (he’s more humble than that).
Shively was referring to a data legacy — vital operational and infrastructure information to pass down from one generation to the next. Foresight allows him to act with an equal measure of responsibility toward those he serves today as well as those who will come long after. He recognizes that while his job is to steward water and the environment, it is ultimately about serving people. As he noted in the aforementioned feature, “People are our most precious resource.”
Shively’s approach is certainly smart, which can be defined many ways: visionary, pragmatic, emotionally intelligent, or in the case of “smart” systems, technically advanced. On all fronts, as I found in the following Q&A, Shively and Kansas City are at the head of the class. We discussed infrastructure, regulations, and sustainability in terms of water, but all of Shively’s responses remained community-oriented — smartly focused on the most precious resource of all.
Kansas City’s Smart Sewer program was an unprecedented undertaking. How has it impacted the city?
Meeting the requirements of the federal consent decree has placed a heavy burden on the residents of Kansas City. When the 25-year, $4.5 billion plan was developed in 2008, Kansas City expected that median household incomes would keep pace with a modest increase of 3 percent each year. The reality is that wastewater rates continued to rise to meet the demands of the consent decree, but household incomes did not.
Conversely, as the largest infrastructure investment in the history of Kansas City, the Smart Sewer program has the potential to touch the lives and livelihoods of citizens in all areas of our city.
Kansas City is a city full of innovation and moxie. Our leaders and our residents use every opportunity possible to leverage each dollar to improve the lives of our residents. We were the first city in the nation to receive federal approval for the use of green infrastructure solutions in our consent decree. This first step was critical in bringing communities together and bringing the topic of combined sewer overflows to the surface of neighborhood conversations. Our first large-scale green infrastructure improvements are nearly complete in the Marlborough neighborhood, which has seen a dramatic transformation in appearance, community engagement, and livable corridors.
The city’s investment in the Smart Sewer program also created a need for contractors with the skills necessary to perform the work established as part of the consent decree. Kansas City met this challenge first by providing an annual capital improvements rollout to contractors. The rollout sets the tone and expectations for the water and wastewater work to be performed in the coming fiscal year — but most importantly, the rollout provides the anticipated bid schedule and contact information for every single project. The rollout continues to grow each year as our base of experienced contractors becomes more robust. In 2017, we added an additional layer of transparency by providing a report card of our own work. Residents and contractors can now see if Kansas City met the project commitments made in the previous fiscal year.
In addition to the annual capital rollout, Kansas City also offers Smart Sewer University. The university is designed to help local small businesses develop the skills needed to perform work within the Smart Sewer program, and to use those skills to compete for similar work outside of Kansas City. Since the program began in 2013, Kansas City has provided more than 5,500 hours of training and tripled the number of minority firms serving as prime contractors.
What else is Kansas City doing to ensure residents receive value for their investment in the Smart Sewer program?
Last year, Kansas City implemented a private inflow and infiltration program. The program is believed to be among the largest in the nation with an $83 million budget. The program’s success rests solely on voluntary participation from residents — which is gained one home at a time as crews literally knock door-to-door to solicit participation from homeowners.
The program is an important element in helping the city to achieve cost efficiencies within the Smart Sewer program. Participation in the program is free, and if the city finds a source of inflow/infiltration at the property that is cost-effective to remove — a certified plumber will fix the issue at no cost to the homeowner. So far, the cost per gallon to remove these sources on the private side is running $.58 per gallon compared to public side removal at $1.20 per gallon. The program is also a huge opportunity to connect with residents. I’m proud to say that the program has 99 percent customer satisfaction.
The "value of water" is clearly defensible, so is the public generally accepting of rate hikes?
In Kansas City, the burden of rate increases and monthly water bills is heavy.
Kansas City’s $4.5 billion Smart Sewer program is funded solely through wastewater revenues. This requires significant wastewater rate increases, resulting in higher bills paid by Kansas City customers.
Residents in Kansas City have already been faced with seven years of double-digit rate increases, which have more than doubled the average monthly bill for consumers. Before implementing the $4.5 billion-dollar unfunded program to meet the requirements of the Clean Water Act, customers paid an average monthly bill of $48 in 2009. Current average residential bills now total $102 per month and the city must continue to raise rates annually to meet the requirements of the consent decree.
Kansas City’s mayoral-appointed task force has spent the last year reviewing possible solutions to the city’s growing cost-of-service concerns. The result has been a resounding recommendation to the city to find other, cost-efficient solutions to meet the city’s consent decree and to work with the EPA to implement those options.
While citizens should rightly pay for the product and services of the water provider, water is also essential to life and health. How do you balance these factors?
Kansas City offers a water “lifeline” block to all customers. The principle behind this measure is to provide the water necessary for life and health at a reduced rate. The city discounts the use of the minimum amount of water necessary for health and life to assist customers in achieving this balance.
I think this balance is a critical issue that deserves national attention. Customers are required to pay for infrastructure improvements that were neglected for generations. Local utilities must constantly consider how to provide quality services while also making the critical improvements necessary to secure the system for the long-term. An issue of this magnitude deserves the attention of policymakers who may be able to implement the changes necessary to help cities address this growing issue.
How does KCMO collaborate with other government offices, businesses, or organizations to improve operations?
Kansas City is always looking for strategic ways to improve the lives of our residents — and to get the most out of each investment. One topic of primary concern for residents is the condition of neighborhood sidewalks. To address this issue Kansas City is launching a pilot program that will move scheduled water main replacements from underneath paved streets and place them under deteriorating sidewalks. This pilot program requires collaboration from several City departments, including the Public Works, Parks, and Water Services Departments. I love this program because it not only addresses the city’s sidewalk concerns, but also reduces restoration costs — potentially saving the city $5 million in the first year.
Has the Trump administration or new U.S. EPA leadership affected KCMO operations? Do you anticipate impact in the future?
It is too early to tell the impacts of the Trump administration or the new EPA leadership. I am excited for this time in our nation’s history and I am hopeful that the policies and viewpoints of this new administration will support cities just like Kansas City who are seeking innovative ways to meet federal regulations.
The EPA measures compliance based solely on performance — through reduction of the volume and frequency of sewer overflows. The fallacy in this approach is that the same regulations that were enacted to protect public health and safety do not take into consideration the benefit to the community. If we truly want to improve the health, safety, and lives of the people we serve, we need an administration that will consider community-based benefits balanced with performance-based measures.
Kansas City continues to be a leader in innovative infrastructure solutions that not only improve water and wastewater services but, most importantly, provide a positive benefit to the people that are paying for those investments.
Utilities can no longer send a monthly bill to residents and expect them to pay without questioning the value they are receiving for the service. It is our responsibility to provide transparency to residents and to demonstrate the value of the service we provide. I take this responsibility to heart, which is why I have dedicated my career to uncovering solutions that are not only cost-effective, but will continue to serve our residents for over a century.
Aside from the absence of revenue to meet unfunded mandates, I urge the administration to consider the appropriateness in asking one generation of taxpayers to remedy the infrastructure issues created by multiple generations. This is especially critical for communities like Kansas City where citizens are already dealing with affordability concerns connected with meeting the requirements of the Clean Water Act and aging infrastructure.
What are you most proud of as far as KCMO accomplishments? What keyed their success?
A strong leader is key to the success of any program. You need someone to champion the effort and drive the work. I am proud to have served the City of Kansas City in implementing many programs — but one of my proudest accomplishments would be the city’s 100-year Water Main Replacement program.
The program is important on many levels. Through the program, staff cataloged the entire history of Kansas City’s installed water mains and used that data to calculate the most break-prone segments, reducing the number of water main breaks by more than 60 percent in just five years.
The program also served as a catalyst for important changes within the infrastructure industry. Kansas City was the first American city to specify the use of zinc coating on ductile iron water mains. At the time, the product was only provided overseas. At first, American manufactures were reluctant to produce the pipe — but when Kansas City’s Water Main Replacement Program wrote the product into the project specifications, American pipe manufacturers began providing the product in the United States to meet Kansas City’s 28-mile-per-year demand. Now, zinc-coated ductile iron pipe is a common product sold in the U.S.
This is just a single example of Kansas City’s leadership within the industry. Others include the city’s billion-dollar infrastructure challenge, the use of data to improve the daily lives of our residents, and the use of non-traditional products to add to the sustainability of the system.
My passion for people is what drives me to continue to seek better solutions for residents — solutions that will transcend generations. We have a huge responsibility in this industry to build infrastructure solutions that will stand the test of time. In Kansas City, we believe that if the best solution doesn’t already exist, then it’s our duty to create that solution. This mentality benefits more than just Kansas Citians; it serves to strengthen the infrastructure industry as it transforms to meet next-century utility needs.
Are resiliency and sustainability concerns of yours moving forward? How do you "future-proof" your utility?
The smartest solutions consider sustainability and enhancing the performance of current system, and address resiliency through the ability to preserve that system over time.
Kansas City addresses sustainability by requiring the use of Envision principles as part of the design of all infrastructure projects. Kansas City was the first in the nation to achieve Platinum certification for a combined sewer overflow control project — and the project is also the largest project area in the nation to earn this designation.
In the long term, Kansas City achieves sustainability and resiliency by looking ahead and finding solutions for the next generation of infrastructure needs and challenges. Kansas City’s master planning efforts forecast critical infrastructure needs and the financing required to meet those needs. We already know that Kansas City must invest $800 million in wastewater system upgrades to meet future NPDES regulations by the year 2035. This investment is in addition to the $4.5 billion necessary to meet the requirements of the city’s consent decree.
If we each had a crystal ball, then “future-proofing” would be an easy formula. I cannot predict the future, but I can guarantee that if today’s leaders do not act now, then we will be leaving a legacy of debt. This is why I am so passionate about every detail of my work and why I will continue to find the best solutions for Kansas City. The work we do today will ensure a better and more resilient future for our children.