Municipal Water Leader
Interview

Water Utility Improvements in Lawrence, Kansas

Lawrence is a city of around 102,000people in the northeastern corner of Kansas and is the home of the University of Kansas. The city’s water, wastewater, and storm water utilities serve the city and several outlying regions. Like many municipalities, Lawrence is working to install smart, automated meters. It is also working to reduce unwanted infiltration and inflows into older clay sewer pipes and addressing debris and nutrients in the source water for its reservoirs. In this interview, MikeLawless, the deputy director of the City of Lawrence’s Municipal Services and Operations Department (MSO), gives Municipal Water Leader a comprehensive look at the department’s top issues and current work.

Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position. 

Mike Lawless: In 1992, I started my first municipal job as an assistant city engineer in Raymore, Missouri; worked my way up to city engineer; and moved to Liberty, Missouri, as city engineer. My family then moved to Texas, where I was the city engineer for the City of Hurst. My wife had an opportunity to go to school at the University of Kansas in 2007, so I applied for a job building a wastewater treatment plant in Lawrence as a representative for the city. Not long after I was hired, the project was paused because of the downturn in the economy. Next thing I knew, I was hired as the assistant director for the utilities department. My duties included budget, rates, capital improvement plan development, and field operations. A couple of years ago, the City of Lawrence merged its utilities and public works departments into the MSO. After that merger, my new position was deputy director of the MSO. 

Municipal Water Leader: Would you give us an overview of the City of Lawrence’s water, wastewater and storm water services? 

Mike Lawless: We have two water treatment plants and two different sources of water. One plant, the Kaw Water Treatment Plant, has the Kansas River, also known as the Kaw River, as its water source. The other plant is the Clinton Water Treatment Plant. Its source is the Clinton Reservoir, which is a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reservoir. We’re fortunate to have two different plants, either of which can supply the average daily flow to our customers. However, both plants are needed for peak summer demand. 

We also have two wastewater treatment plants. One discharges to the Kansas River and the other discharges to the Wakarusa River. The Wakarusa plant is our newest plant—it has been in operation since 2018. It’s a 2.5-million-gallon-per-day (MGD) biological nutrient removal plant. We’re pleased with the excellent results we’re getting from that facility. 

The city operates an Army Corps levee that protects North Lawrence—the section of Lawrence that lies north of the Kansas River—from flooding. The levee runs for 19.6 miles along the Kansas River and Mud Creek and has 27 gate structures. There are four storm water pump stations on the land side of the levee to pump storm water out of North Lawrence and over the levee. Anytime there are flooding events on the Kansas River, we operate and monitor all the gatewell structures on the levee and document water levels and levee conditions. 

The rest of the city has gravity sewers that drain to various creeks and channels that in turn drain to the Kansas or Wakarusa Rivers. We are in the process of collecting asset location and condition information on the storm water system that will be used in basin models for the storm water system. 

Municipal Water Leader: How many customers do you serve, and across how large a service area? 

Mike Lawless: We have roughly 34,400 customer accounts. We are currently undertaking an advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) project, so I have a pretty good count for the project. The population within our city limits is just over 102,000, and we have six wholesale customers that together add another 15,000 people. The service area within our city limits is about 35 square miles. 

Municipal Water Leader: Would you tell us more about that AMI project? 

Mike Lawless: Right now, most of our water meters are read by our seven meter readers, who read about 33,000 meters on walking routes each month; the rest are connected to an automated meter reading system. We have driver routes that use a laptop to read the meters remotely via radio. Generally, these meters are in vaults or indoor businesses. Through our AMI project, which will cost around $10 million, we are installing the Sensus FlexNet communication system. We will replace all our 5/8-inch and 1-inch meters and some of the large meters and will add radios to all the meters. The project will allow us to transmit hourly data to our meter data management system. We’ll be able to pull hourly or daily readings or billing readings from that system. The fact that we will no longer need to walk all our routes will help us to be more efficient. 

We started planning the AMI project in late 2015. Our business case analysis suggested that we would recoup our expenses after a 12‑ to 13‑year payback period. As we began to assemble funding, we discovered that our billing system lacked the capabilities we needed for a new water rate structure and the AMI project. We paused the AMI project for a couple of years to focus on a new billing system, which ultimately went online in December 2019. By the time we finish the AMI project in 2022, we’ll have an integrated system for meter reading and billing. It will also provide a mountain of data that we hope to be able to use in the technical and operational sides of the utility. 

Municipal Water Leader: Who manufactures the meters that you are installing? 

Mike Lawless: We went through a request for proposal process and selected the Sensus FlexNet system and meters for the AMI project and Harris SmartWorks Compass software for the meter data management system. 

Municipal Water Leader: Would you tell us about some of the water conservation activities that you have undertaken over the last few years? 

Mike Lawless: One of the strategic goals of the city commission is conservation and efficiency. We’re getting ready to implement an individual inclining-block water rate for our residential customers, which, along with the AMI project, will help to promote operational efficiency and conservation. AMI provides customers the ability to monitor their own water use throughout the month via a customer portal. 

Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about your Ecoflow inflow and infiltration reduction program. Why did you decide to pursue that project, and what does it entail? 

Mike Lawless: We had been lining our older clay pipes for a number of years and had completed a fair amount, but we were still seeing pretty high peak flows at the wastewater plant—our peak flows were about eight times higher than our average daily flows. In 2012, through the master planning process, we set a goal to reduce the peak flow of the Kansas River Wastewater Treatment Plant by 35 percent. This would help us eliminate the need for capacity expansion at that facility, in the collection system interceptor sewers, and at our pump stations. We realized that we needed to consider removing inflow and infiltration from both the private and public sewer systems if we were going to achieve the 35 percent goal. The Ecoflow program was the private-side program that was created to pursue that aim. 

The master plan focused on the area around the university, which has the oldest clay sewer lines. We wanted to inspect each private structure in that area and see if it contributed significant inflow or infiltration to those pipes. We didn’t want it to just be a study—we wanted to quickly find the problems, fix them, and move on. That’s how we came up with the Ecoflow program. We would divide the area into phases and address them one by one. We would do an evaluation, figure out what we need to do, and then contract out the work, all within about 60 days. 

Municipal Water Leader: How old are those clay pipes? 

Mike Lawless: In this area, quite a few are from the 1920s and 1930s. We’ve had to replace parts as recently as the last couple of years. The majority of the sewer system is probably from the 1950s or earlier. 

Municipal Water Leader: Would you tell us about what the City of Lawrence has done to address and remedy flooding problems? 

Mike Lawless: We have a pretty good handle on our water and sewer infrastructure assets. We know what assets we have and where they are, and we have a pretty good idea of their condition. That’s not necessarily the case on the storm water side. We know where some of the system is, but in some parts of town, we don’t have a good sense of the extent of our assets. 

The capital improvement plan we recently proposed involves a 3‑year project to identify our storm water assets and verify or determine their locations and conditions. That will go a long way toward resolving some of the localized flooding issues that we have. Some of our neighborhoods are over 100 years old; they’re on the hill around the University of Kansas campus, and in some spots, we might not have storm sewer infrastructure for multiple blocks. Capturing water that’s running off a pretty steep hill is difficult without proper infrastructure. As we identify the extent of our system in each of the storm water drainage basins, we can start to model what we need to do to remedy localized flooding issues. The city’s last master plan was drawn up in 1995 or 1996, so we’re looking to update that information and get a better handle on what we have in each of the basins. 

Municipal Water Leader: What are your other top issues today? 

Mike Lawless: We started a source water protection program a couple years ago. The flooding that we had last year slowed the program’s progress, and now COVID-19 has slowed it down even more. We’re looking at ways to reduce the amount of sedimentation and nutrients coming into the Clinton Reservoir from the watersheds above it. We’re partnering with the Kansas Alliance for Wetlands and Streams (KAWS) to construct projects to address sedimentation and nutrient removal with constructed wetlands upstream of the reservoir. We help KAWS to leverage the funding it gets from the State of Kansas; the Natural Resources Conservation Service; and other partners, such as Ducks Unlimited. 

Municipal Water Leader: How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your operations? 

Mike Lawless: Everybody who can work from home has been working from home since mid-March. Some people, such as treatment operators and some engineering and administrative staff, have to be on site. To separate and isolate the various operations groups, we have had most of the engineering staff who worked at the plants now work from home; the treatment and plant maintenance operators are the main people working in the plants. We separated the distribution and collection crews as well. If one crew typically does in-house water main rehabilitation, then that group stays together. We don’t mix the service-line crews with the meter readers, for example. We try to keep crews separate so that we can minimize the number of people who may have to quarantine if someone tests positive. 

Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about your vision for the future of Lawrence’s utilities. 

Mike Lawless: We’re trying to become more efficient with the dollars that we get. Our city manager, Craig Owens, likes to talk about achieving the lowest cost of ownership for the city. We focus our efforts on that goal. To do that, asset management and life-cycle costing are key—figuring out what we have, what condition it is in, what we are going to do to it, and when we need to do it. In the future, I see us using SCADA integration with asset management. I’d really like to get to the point at which information from SCADA automatically triggers preventative maintenance activities in the work-order asset-management system. That will help us do a better job managing the assets. As we finish implementing the Ecoflow program in the initial area and see the results, I expect us to expand it to other sewer sheds in the city. 

Mike Lawless is the deputy director of the Municipal Services and Operations Department for the City of Lawrence, Kansas. He can be contacted at mlawless@lawrenceks.org.