News Feature | April 13, 2016

Kansas City Fights Water Main Breaks With Predictive Analysis

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome,

In Kansas City, MO, the oldest sewer dates back to the Civil War.

And “our oldest water mains that we think we have in service date back to 1874 in the City Market,” said Terry Leeds, director of KC Water Services, per KCUR.

He called Kansas City the “city of fountains” because it faces so many water main breaks.

“Usually the city handles about 700 water main breaks a year. But [one official] says a couple of drought years, 2011 and 2012, really brought home just how bad Kansas City’s pipes had gotten,” the report said.

Andy Shively, engineering officer at the water department, explained the challenge of dry years.

“Those cast iron water lines that are normally very reliable become unreliable during dry weather because they can’t take that soil movement,” Shively said.

To contend with main breaks, water workers embarked on a new data-intensive project, entering details about 70,000 individual pipe segments into a database and scoring them from one to ten.

“The scores measure two things: how likely a pipe is to fail, and how bad it’ll be when it does,” the report said.

There wasn’t always much to go on when creating the scores.

“Our oldest records were handwritten notes dating back to the late 1800s,” Shively said, per the report. “Predictive analysis is as much as an art as it is as a scientist. So main breaks, although we would like to have a crystal ball that told us where exactly where these things were going to occur every time, that’s not reality.”

The city is planning to boost its investment in water infrastructure: $1.2 billion over the next 25 years. Years of underinvestment have left the city replete with pipes that are nearing the end of their useful life.

“Across the country, Leeds says, water has been an undervalued utility. The problem began in the ’60s. Water rates started low and stayed low, even as the oldest pipes in Kansas City hit the century mark. Leeds says Kansas City is paying for that underinvestment now. Even six years of double-digit rate increase hasn’t been enough to replace pipes as fast as they’re breaking,” according to the report.

“Next fiscal year, Leeds said, the department expects to spend more than $100 million on water infrastructure upgrades, including 28 miles of water main replacements, and $200 million on sewer improvements,” The Kansas City Star recently reported.

In a research report, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave Missouri a C- for its drinking water efforts. “Even though Missouri has an abundance of water for serving its communities, its aging water treatment and distribution systems are struggling to keep up with current demand for operations and maintenance,” the report said.

To read more about water main breaks and how to prevent them, check out Water Online’s Asset Management Solutions Center.