Growth gamble

Determining the proper timing for a new sewage treatment plant for Lawrence is a tricky proposition.

May 31, 2011


It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the choices surrounding a new sewage treatment plant for the city of Lawrence aren’t very appealing. Nothing about that subject ever is.

But Lawrence city commissioners are facing a particularly tough decision about when to begin designing and building an $80 million to $90 million sewage treatment plant south of the Wakarusa River.

City leaders long have known that Lawrence’s lone sewage treatment plant has a finite capacity — likely reaching its limits when the city grows to around 100,000 to 110,000 residents. City leaders also have known that it will take about four years to design and bring a new sewage treatment plant on line. What city leaders are struggling to determine is how quickly the city will grow.

During this summer’s budget deliberations, commissioners will have to decide whether 2012 is the year to start designing the project. If so, sewer rates will rise significantly, almost certainly by more than 10 percent.

If city commissioners act now, monthly sewer bills will rise dramatically with no guarantee that a new plant will be needed in the near future. If they wait to start the project, the city in the next five years could have to say no to some developments because it doesn’t have adequate sewer capacity.

It is a delicate decision for sure, but commissioners should be cautious about making significant rate increases to start the project in 2012.

Commissioners should take more time with the subject, in part, because they are dealing with incomplete information. The population of the city is a key factor in determining when this plant will be needed. Determining the city’s population has been tricky of late. The U.S. Census Bureau’s official count put the city’s 2010 population at 87,643 people. But the city’s planning department has estimated the population at 91,464 people. The difference of nearly 3,800 people is significant in determining how quickly our sewage plant will reach its capacity.

Also important is how fast the city is expected to grow. In the 1990s, the city’s population grew at an average rate of about 2.2 percent per year. In the 2000s, it grew at about 0.9 percent per year. What does the city expect the growth rate to be in the current decade? It is not clear that the city has a firm answer. It seems that the city would be well-served to have a serious discussion about what are reasonable expectations for growth given the new realities of the economy.

Ultimately, however, the city will be asked to make a bet on the future. Like all bets, there are risks on both sides. Having the best information available, though, should make city commissioners feel better about wherever they choose to place their wager.


Scott Drummond 6 years, 11 months ago

"If they wait to start the project, the city in the next five years could have to say no to some developments because it doesn’t have adequate sewer capacity."

How strange that the editorial page that is forever telling us of the woes of the federal government not living within its means is so willing to entertain deficit spending.

Why should Lawrence residents wish for more "development?" The additional congestion? The crime? Higher taxes for things like sewage plants & fire stations and traffic stations and cops?

What, exactly, is to be gained by the proposed gamble? Other than the government enriching favored speculators that is.

BigPrune 6 years, 11 months ago

Will the economy ever get better anytime soon? I'm not convinced. This calls for a yearly flip the coin toss to decide what to do.

KU_cynic 6 years, 11 months ago

Everybody flush three times at 7:00 PM today if you're in favor of increased sewage fees!

Richard Heckler 6 years, 11 months ago

There are a ton of empty living quarters in Lawrence,kansas which provides a fraudulent perception our fair city. Yet the new housing construction continues. Why?

A $100 million sewage treatment plant for one special interest group is reckless thinking.

The housing rebound is years and years and years away. Until 20 million people get back to stable employment there is no reason to get excited about a sewage treatment plant. Millions upon millions upon millions of houses on the market will take a very long time to dispose of in the economy that Bush/Cheney left behind.

Lawrence has never been known for mountains of decent paying jobs and now the competition is much stiffer than ever before. Lawrence also fewer employers with some hitting the road immediately upon tax abatements expiring.

Gasoline prices will not be friendly to commuting so I say all things considered forget about the sewage treatment plant.

Richard Heckler 6 years, 11 months ago

I believe city hall increased rates sometime ago for this project however that money could be put into improving Lawrence as a full blown Walkability Community that needs safe sidewalks.

Sidewalks are key to good health and low impact exercise. Yes let's put these tax dollars into several older neighborhoods instead of one sewage treatment plant for one special interest tax dollar mooching group.

Fix the crossing tunnel by Pinckney School.

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