The city of Lawrence provides a reliable source of good water and, situated between the Kansas River and Clinton Lake, it is primed to do so for generations to come.
Then, why is it likely the patrons of Douglas County Rural Water District No. 5 will be asked to participate in a $16 million project to lay nearly 30 miles of new pipe so the district can replace its city of Lawrence water with water from another source? Why may the residents of Baldwin City be asked to build a large new pipe to De Soto to capture water from the former Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant when Baldwin City already has a perfectly fine pipe that carries treated water from the city of Lawrence?
There are no good logistical reasons why any of that should happen, but there are many political ones — and that’s a shame.
Baldwin City and Rural Water District No. 5 are among Lawrence’s larger wholesale water customers. Both are in serious discussions about joining with partners and building new water treatment plants.
Millions of gallons of water sold by the city of Lawrence are at stake. But stakes even larger than that are at play here. Also at stake is Douglas County’s reputation as a progressive community where governments come together and work together. If these new plants are built, it will be because the county’s two largest governments — the city of Lawrence and Douglas County — failed to plan for the future.
It is difficult to be critical of Rural Water District No. 5 and Baldwin City for wanting to look elsewhere for water supplies. For decades the city of Lawrence has badly overplayed its hand as the largest supplier of treated water in the county. Lately, the city simply has been overcharging for the service. It has increased wholesale water rates at a pace much quicker than that for residential and business customers in Lawrence. The city has taken its largest customers for granted.
But the problems go deeper than money. In the 1990s, the city of Lawrence imposed caps on the number of new meters rural water districts could add each year. The city was in a position to do that because it provided treated water to the districts. But the policy created considerable ill will between the water districts and the city.
The city imposed the meter caps because it argued it had much to lose if the areas just outside the city limits were allowed to develop in a willy-nilly fashion through a county rule called the five-acre exemption. It was a legitimate concern from the city, but for more than a decade there was not the political will at the county level to fix the problem. Instead, the city just used the blunt instrument of water to limit growth. In the eyes of large water customers, that era continues to color Lawrence as an unreasonable partner.
Now, city and county leaders need to determine what can be done to bring all the various water-using entities of the county together. In these tight times, spending millions of dollars to build new water infrastructure when perfectly fine infrastructure already exists is irresponsible.
Perhaps if everybody comes together and buries a few political hatchets, ratepayers can be spared the unnecessary construction of miles and miles of new water lines.