Wastewater rates will keep going up in Kansas City, but less under new deal with EPA

Steve Vockrodt
·3 min read

Wastewater rates for Kansas City residents and businesses will continue to go up under a new agreement with a federal agency, but less than originally anticipated.

Kansas City officials reached a new deal with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Justice Department that is expected to lower the cost of a federally mandated project to overhaul the city’s sewer system.

Kansas City leaders this week touted the new agreement, which has been a long-sought goal at City Hall.

“When I came into office, renegotiation of the EPA consent decree was a top priority,” Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas said in a statement. “Since August 2019, I have met with our federal elected officials, administrators and rate payers with concerns about being able to afford their increasing bills.”

As a result, Kansas City residents are expected to see annual wastewater rate increases of no more than 6% through 2035. Before this latest agreement, yearly wastewater rate increases of between 8% and 13% were planned for the next 14 years.

It’s not uncommon to hear complaints from Kansas City residents about the increases in their water and wastewater rates, which show up together on the same bill every month. Water and sewer bills used to be easy payments to make.

But Kansas City for decades relied on an outdated combined sewer system that had a knack for spilling sewage into rivers when heavy rains burdened the city’s sewers.

The EPA and the Justice Department reached an agreement with Kansas City in 2010 that required the city to fix and modernize its sewers. It was up to the city to figure out how to pay for it.

City Hall’s main plan to fund the expensive sewer overhaul — at a projected cost of $5 billion — was to pass the cost onto residents and businesses through rate increases.

In 2011, the average residential water, sewer and storm water bill was $58.81. At that time, water was the largest segment of that average bill, accounting for $30.74, or just more than half of the cost to residents. The average sewer charge was $25.57.

Nowadays, the average combined water and sewer bill is $103.89 a month. Sewer charges have primarily driven the increase in monthly bills. The average sewer charge now is $63.47, good for a 148% increase since fiscal year 2011.

The bill increases alarmed not only residents but political leaders. In 2018, Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt and then-Sen. Claire McCaskill, as well as Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, asked the Trump Administration to approve modifications to Kansas City’s agreement with the EPA.

On Jan. 15, the Justice Department proposed an amendment of its agreement with Kansas City in federal court, which in March was approved by Judge Gary Fenner of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri.

“I’m glad that the changes announced will bring relief to those who need it most without hampering Kansas City’s progress in completing the largest public works project in its history,” Blunt said in a statement.

Kansas City’s revised consent decree with the EPA allows the city to use newer, greener technology to reduce sewage overflows at a reduced overall cost.