After A DNR Boost To Remove Lead Water Pipes, What's Next?

Current Funding Falls Short, And Paying For Future Work Is Uncertain
Disqus Comments

Wisconsin's municipal drinking-water systems have tens of thousands of lead pipes in communities around the state, and there is growing pressure to get rid of them. However, when they might be removed and replaced, and what would fund this work, is proving to be difficult to answer.

Lead is a heavy metal and neurotoxin that's particularly dangerous to young children. It often comprises underground pipes called service lines that carry drinking water from municipal water mains to individual homes and other buildings. Corrosive chemicals in water, some naturally present and some added as part of treatment by public utilities, dissolve lead in service lines. Over many decades, it's created a public health crisis around the U.S. and in Wisconsin, particularly in Milwaukee.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated in 2013 that Wisconsin has about 176,000 lead service lines, and replacing them all would cost more than a billion dollars. Service lines are located across both public and private property. Under state regulations, water utilities cannot use money collected from ratepayers to replace the private portion of a service line. This law is something Wisconsin has in common with just about every other state, said Diane VanDe Hei, CEO of the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies.

Indeed, replacing just the public segment of a service line is worse than useless — it doesn't get rid of all the lead, and can even shake loose lead deposits in the remaining portion of the pipe, sometimes actually increasing lead levels in drinking water.

The scale and complexity of the problem means local governments have to get creative. Many across Wisconsin take an incremental approach, replacing lead service lines along the routes of road construction projects and convincing property owners to pay for the private half. Madison used revenue from cell tower leases to fund its almost unheard-of effort to get rid of all lead pipes in the city. Green Bay is using its share of Lambeau Field sales tax revenue to beef up its lead abatement efforts.

In 2016, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources announced that it would grant local governments about $14.5 million in federal funds from the EPA to help pay for the private portion of lead service lines. Dozens of municipalities will receive grants across fiscal year 2017 and 2018. This money will likely aid in the replacement of 4,000 to 5,000 pipes across the state. After that, water utilities will be left searching for money to deal with the rest.

"We explained to [the DNR] that we really really like the program and we like it so much that we'd like for it to continue, and at this time we've been told …. that they do not intend to extend it past this year," said Milwaukee Water Utility superintendent Jennifer Gonda.

In calendar 2017, Gonda expects that Milwaukee will replace about 650 lead service lines. For each one, the homeowner will contribute about $1,600, and the city will cover the rest, in part with funds from the DNR program. Replacing just the homeowner side of a line can cost $3,000 or more, and that cost will vary depending on the specifics of the project and what kind of deal a city is able to strike with a plumbing contractor.

Ross Blaha, water utility manager for Two Rivers Water & Light, said he's getting the same signal from the DNR. "The future of the program is not long-term," he said.

Blaha estimates that the city of Two Rivers has about 2,300 lead service lines and will be able to replace 85 as a result of the loan program. He has yet to consider how he'll deal with the rest.

"If I had that crystal ball I would be a millionaire," Blaha said. I would hope there would be funding but I don't know."

In February, state Senator Robert Cowles, R-Green Bay, introduced a bill (SB 48) that would allow public water utilities to fund the replacement of lead service lines on private property, provided its public portion is also replaced. This bill is currently taking a backseat to budget negotiations, but a bipartisan group of 17 senators have joined Cowles as co-sponsors. In the Assembly, it has 37 co-sponsors, also from both parties. Work on the bill will likely continue in the fall, a staff member for Cowles said.

Even given the option provided in the bill, local governments would need to pass ordinances to actually allow their water utilities to use it. They'd also have to come up with funding — a tough proposition for cash-strapped municipalities, especially ones with a small or even shrinking group of ratepayers.

While the next federal budget is expected to deal extensive cuts to the EPA, it's not clear that funding concerns are what's causing the time limit on the DNR's program. In fact, an EPA budget brief shows that the Trump administration proposes keeping Wisconsin's allocations from the agency's state infrastructure-assistance funds close to flat from 2017 to 2018, increasing them slightly. DNR officials did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

However, to really put a dent in lead pipes would likely require much more federal funding, and it's not clear where that would come from either. In December 2016, President Barack Obama signed the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act, or WIIN Act, which passed both houses of Congress with bipartisan support. The act created an EPA program that would provide $300 million over the course of five years for lead service line replacement, but Congress hasn't actually funded the program.

As federal budget proposals shape up in Congress and at the White House, VanDe Hei doesn't see a lot of direct threats to drinking water infrastructure funding, but doesn't see things getting better either.

"We had higher hopes during the campaign for the inclusion of water and wastewater infrastructure, but it does appear that the traditional kind of bridges and roads infrastructure that you see seems to have a higher profile," she said.

This uncertainty leaves water officials like Gonda short on options, and hoping their cities can somehow come through with other funding mechanisms.

Milwaukee adopted a city ordinance in December 2016 that would help property owners pay to replace their segments of lead service lines. This program will likely replace several hundred pipes, but Milwaukee is estimated to have nearly 70,000 in total, by far the most of any community in the state.

If Milwaukee wants to get rid of all lead service lines in the city, it will require hundreds of millions of dollars more than government agencies or private funders have committed to lead abatement so far.

"We have researched that quite extensively, and we have not been able to find any state, federal or private philanthropic funds that are available for that purpose at this point," Gonda said.

Getting rid of every lead service line in the U.S. would cost billions of dollars, and wouldn't make everyone's drinking water lead-free, because natural lead deposits still contaminate groundwater. VanDe Hei counsels an incremental approach, noting that treating water with chemicals that control lead corrosion has had a significant public-health impact since the 1990s. Plus, she said, utilities have to balance the threat of lead with other water-quality concerns.

"If you put billions and billions of dollars into lead service line replacements, what are the public risks that we won't be able to have funds to address?" she said. "You have to ask yourself, what are the things we can be doing now?"

Disqus Comments