Town Talk: Water line breaks up 80 percent in city, more than $72M of lines to replace by 2030; KU duo proposes plan to reuse more than a dozen trees to be cut down by library project

News and notes from around town:

• There has been no shortage of big-dollar ideas to talk about at Lawrence City Hall in recent months. A $19 million library expansion project, a proposed $25 million recreation center/youth fieldhouse, more than $10 million worth of pending infrastructure improvements at the former Farmland Industries site, and about $30 million worth of facilities and staffing needs being lobbied for by the Police Department have been some of the more visible projects or proposals.

But there is one big-ticket item that has had a lower profile — low as in below the ground.

There’s a new report out at City Hall that highlights an issue that staff members have been talking about for awhile now: There are 87 miles of water lines that need to be replaced in the city between now and 2030. That is 18 percent of all water lines in the city, and it is estimated it would cost $72.3 million in today’s dollars to replace the pipes.

As I noted, this issue hasn’t snuck up on city staff. I’ve heard City Manager David Corliss talk several times about his concerns related to underground infrastructure. But the issue is how to pay for it.

If the city followed the recommendation of its consultants, it would have to set aside a little more than $4 million a year for the next 17 years (none of this is adjusted for inflation) to replace the aging pipes. Another option mentioned by the consultant is to stretch the replacement period out to 2045, which would reduce the amount of money the city would have to come up with right now.

But it also may create more problems in the meantime. That’s the real point the new report from City Hall is trying to drive home: The city’s deferred maintenance on waterlines is starting to create real-life problems above ground.

The number of waterline breaks has increased by nearly 80 percent since 2009. Last year the city had 180 waterline breaks. So far, the city has responded to 160 breaks this year. Many of the breaks have been disruptive.

In July, there was a water main break that cut off water service to Del Monte’s pet food plant, the Kmart Distribution Center and other businesses and homes in northern Lawrence. Del Monte and Kmart shut down for the day, and the two businesses estimated they lost about $60,000 due to the work stoppage.

In early August, the majority of Kansas University’s main campus was without water for a day. A series of breaks along 23rd Street in August and October caused 22 businesses to close for up to six hours at a time during peak business times.

In September, a water main break near 5200 Clinton Parkway left 108 residential customers without water service, plus the KU Tennis Center, which was hosting a tournament at the time.

Then on Sept. 24, the same line that broke in July near Del Monte’s pet food plant broke again. This time Del Monte estimated the down time cost the company a little more than $25,000, although Kmart kept its distribution center open by renting portable toilets and buying bottled water for employees.

The issue now is what will city leaders try to do to fix the infrastructure problems. When a report came out several years ago that shed light on how badly the city’s street system was deteriorating, city leaders convinced the public to support a new infrastructure sales tax.

That won’t be the fix this time. A more likely one is higher water rates. City staff members recommended a water rate increase that ranged from 4 percent to 6 percent depending on several variables. But city commissioners balked at the rate increase, which has been their inclination the last couple of years.

That was in late summer, and staff members said they would bring back a new set of recommendations for the commission to consider. Those recommendations haven’t yet been presented.

Part of the problem is the issue goes beyond old water lines. There also are at least three other big-ticket items looming in the city’s water system: 1. More than $6 million worth of repairs to the water intake at the Kaw Water Treatment plant. 2. A multimillion-dollar waterline project to extend a second supply of water into North Lawrence. Currently, all of North Lawrence relies on just one water line that crosses the Kansas River under the downtown Kaw bridges. 3. An expensive but unknown fix to correct taste and odor problems that have been occurring over the last couple of summers.

It seems unlikely that a rate increase will be passed in time to begin 2013, but the city has the flexibility to increase rates during the middle of the year, if desired. The question I have is whether city commissioners will choose to tackle this before the April City Commission elections.

Whether they do, here’s betting that water rates and the deteriorating condition of the city’s water system becomes a growing political issue.

• Speaking of growing, here’s something that won’t be growing for much longer: The approximately one dozen trees that currently line the site of the Lawrence Public Library.

The $19 million expansion project will require pretty much all those mature trees to be removed. (Between the tons and tons of paper books on the shelves and now this, libraries must really hate trees.)

But city officials are poised to approve a unique program to at least try ensure that those trees live on in one form or another. Mark Jakubauskas, a research associate professor at the Kansas Biological Survey, and Matthew Burke, an associate professor of sculpture at KU, have proposed a plan to convert the trees into furniture and art.

The idea is that once the trees are cut down, construction crews would save the trunks of any that are greater than eight inches around. Jakubauskas and Burke then would have the trunks sawed into lumber and properly dried.

Artists and craftsmen then would submit proposals to use the lumber for projects. A jury would select several of the proposals, the works would be made, and then they would be exhibited and sold at an auction, with proceeds benefiting the Friends of the Library organization.

The pair estimates that there are at least a dozen oaks, sycamores and ash trees that could produce about 1,000 board feet of usable lumber.

City commissioners are scheduled to approve the proposal at their Tuesday meeting, which has a special start time of 5 p.m. due to the elections.

I could envision the project creating maybe a nice reading desk, or a bookcase, and I’m sure there are possibilities for unique sculptures. But wait a second. This note has mysteriously dropped from this beautiful tree next to the library. It appears the tree has a suggestion.

It suggests a fancy, ornate carrying case … for a Kindle.

It appears the battle between trees and libraries continues. Have a good weekend.