Archive for Thursday, January 31, 2002

Council wading through water decisions

Olathe interested in water from Sunflower

January 31, 2002

The De Soto City Council learned Monday the city of Olathe was a potential partner in the city's effort to renovate the water treatment plant at the Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant.

City Engineer Mike Brungardt shared the news with the council at a special work session. The meeting was the latest in a series of discussions the council has conducted as it searches for a solution to its long-term water supply needs.

Olathe water department engineer David Cox informed Brungardt the Johnson County city has an interest in either buying water produced at Sunflower or entering into a partnership agreement to help renovate and then operate the plant. Olathe's interest is keen enough it is has contracted with Mid Kansas Engineering to perform an assessment of the costs of using the plant to supply Olathe water, Brungardt said.

Moreover, Olathe is willing to support De Soto's application for the 10-million-gallon-a-day water rights associated with the well field near the Kansas River, which supplies the water plant, Brungardt said.

The city engineer developed estimates of what it would take to renovate the Sunflower plant to various levels of production. It would cost $3.9 million to make the Sunflower plant a sound and reliable source of the city's water for the next 20 to 25 years, he said.

A commitment by Olathe to share in the renovation cost or to purchase water makes the plant upgrades feasible, Brungardt said.

"I still feel there is intrinsic value at that water plant," he said. "The value is in the land, the building, the concrete structures and the transmission lines."

After debate, the council agreed. Adapting a quote from the movie "Field of Dreams," Emil Urbanek said water was becoming such a valuable resource that the city would find customers if it made the improvements. Council members also agreed the city should attempt to finance the Sunflower plant improvements without direct help from Olathe.

"If we're going to do it, let's try to do it without a partnership," Councilman Tim Maniez said. "I'm just afraid we'll do like we have in the past and grossly underestimate its value. We'll give them a gold brick for a penny."

Should the city make the improvements, Olathe would buy the water at the right price, Maniez said.

Councilwoman Linda Zindler said the council couldn't issue debt for improvements based on assumptions but needed long-term commitments from customers.

"We must count on growth or a wholesale customer to make it work," she said. "I want to be sure we have the revenue stream locked up."

Water District No. 1 of Johnson County plans to build a 25-million-a-day water plant near De Soto, Zindler said. When that water plant opens in five years, the water district would probably be able to offer De Soto's customers a better deal, she said.

Anderson offered a way for the city to avoid some of the debt associated with the Sunflower water plant's improvements. He proposed the city use the $2.5 million in its utility reserve account to finance the Sunflower improvements.

"We'd make it back," he said. "I've been saying I'd only commit to that for a 10-to-1 return. I'm not saying we'd get that, but it would be close."

Council members indicated they could support such a move, although Maniez said some of the fund should be retained for emergencies.

Anderson quickly lost support of the council members when he asked if they would commit utility reserve funds to the Sunflower water plant without clear title to the facility.

De Soto's public benefit request for the water plant is in limbo pending resolution of lawsuits brought by Taxpayers Opposed To Oz Inc. against the U.S. General Services Administration's early transfer of Sunflower.

The council agreed the city should develop a business plan for the Sunflower plant to show the state and GSA it is serious.

The Sunflower water rights have been caught up in a bureaucratic boondoggle that pits the state against the federal government. The GSA, which is handling Sunflower's disposal for the Army, negotiated a transfer of the water rights that would give De Soto the rights to the well field and Johnson County Water District No. 1 the larger surface water rights.

The Kansas Water Office, however, maintains the water rights can't be transferred as property. The state's position, reinforced through a 1999 bill passed by the Kansas Legislature, is that the water rights revert to the state once Sunflower ceased to be federal property. In the past, the water office stated it would defend that position in court.

That changed after Anderson got Gov. Bill Graves ear at the Mr. Goodcents open house in October. After his conversation with Anderson, the governor asked the water office to have the legislation repealed so De Soto could secure the water rights.

But after a Jan. 22 meeting involving Anderson, City Attorney Patrick Reavey, water office representatives and Rep. John Ballou, R-Gardner, it was agreed the legislation would be left in place.

Ballou explained Monday the legislation, which he co-authored, was an attempt to prevent Johnson County Water District No. 1 from gobbling up all of Sunflower's water rights.

"If they did that, they would completely surround De Soto," he said. "They could control De Soto's growth."

It was agreed the well field's water rights would be reserved for De Soto, Ballou said. De Soto would get the rights it needs for its immediate use and the remainder would be available when the city could demonstrate a need, he said. The city would also get the water rights needed to serve Gardner, Edgerton and other customers to the south, he said.

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