TOPEKA — The failure of the Kansas Corporation Commission to take decisive action over a four-year period to assure a safe and consistent water supply for almost 70 homes in a private water district near Salina was “grossly negligent,” a commissioner said at a meeting Tuesday.

KCC commissioners heard at its weekly business meeting that Howison Heights Water District owner Tim Howison signed a contract to sell assets and turn over operations of the Howison Heights district to Ottawa County Rural Water District No. 2, hopefully bringing resolution to years of complaints about poor water quality and service and failure to address those complaints.

The Howison Heights Water District serves customers about 3 miles north of Interstate 70 in Ottawa County. Since 2013, customers there have been under boil water orders five times, including one currently in effect that was issued Monday by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. One advisory lasted more than 40 days.

“Since this has been going on for some four years, we have a community out there — close to 70 homes — that don’t know if their water is safe or not,” said KCC Commissioner Pat Apple after hearing a resolution was in the works. “For this agency to have taken four years and still not have taken action that resulted in fixing this — we have failed the people of Howison Heights. If we don’t take this time to reflect on what we do and how we do it, we’re missing a golden opportunity.

“If we needed more authority, we had two legislative sessions that we’ve been through where we could have asked for more authority. We could have sought relief in district court to enforce some of our orders. Mainly what we’ve done has been ignore it. And we’ve allowed for that to happen.

“Could a case be made that we were negligent? I think the case could be made that we were negligent. Could a case be made that we were grossly negligent? I think a case could be made that we were grossly negligent.”

Apple’s impassioned words about the KCC’s failure to address the Howison Heights water problems came after Dustin Kirk, general counsel attorney for the KCC, brought the commission up to date on the recent boil water advisory, a letter from the Saline County commissioners detailing multiple complaints about the district’s service and, finally, the agreement reached between Howison and the Ottawa water district.

Commissioner Jay Emler told Kirk he had a “short fuse” about the Howison situation but was somewhat mollified after hearing that the situation may finally be moving forward.

It is unclear how long it will take for residents served by Howison to see some relief. Kirk said it may take one to two months to complete the legalities of the sale.

Darrell Griffin, an operator for Ottawa County Water District No. 2, said the lines from the Ottawa district will have to be taken across the street to connect to the Howison district, requiring a construction project that will take an unknown amount of time.

“We’ll do it as quick as we can,” he said.

KCC commissioners requested that they be kept up to date on Howison and how quickly the situation will be resolved.

“While it looks like we’re about to the end of this and people of Howison Heights will get some relief, this has gone way too long,” Apple said. “And we need to have some serious discussions of what happened, how we got here, and how can we make sure this doesn’t happen again.

“And I think we owe the people of Howison Heights an apology. We should have done a better job.”