Sponsored by: John Marciszewski, Director, Business Development, Echologics
Written by: Michael Deane, Executive Director, National Association of Water Companies.
The challenges facing the nation’s water infrastructure has been a subject receiving increased attention in recent years. One specific area of heightened awareness pertains to the presence of lead in drinking water systems.
Lead can enter drinking water when pipes and plumbing fixtures that contain lead corrode, especially where the water has high acidity or low mineral content. Leaded solder, used to connect copper pipe and fittings, and leaded alloy, used in faucets and other plumbing components, can cause excessive lead levels. A third, and major, source of contamination is lead service lines – the pipes that connect the water utilities’ underground system of water mains to a home, business or public-use facility.
Even though using lead pipes for new service lines was banned in the 1980s, they still connect an estimated 6.1 million older homes and businesses to water systems across the country. Removing lead service lines significantly reduces the risk of exposure to lead in drinking water. Lead has many widely-known negative health implications, such as impairing normal brain development in infants and children, as well as contributing to learning and behavioral problems.
The members of the National Association of Water Companies (NAWC) provide quality water service to more than 73 million customers and share a commitment to empowering Americans with information about ways they can help ensure the quality of their drinking water. Water management professionals across the nation realize the importance of educating their customers, clarifying who is responsible for replacing outdated lead service lines and providing as much assistance as possible.
NAWC is a founding member of a new national initiative called the Lead Service Line Replacement Collaborative (LSLR) recently launched to help address this problem. The LSLR Collaborative is a joint effort of 24 diverse organizations representing the public health, water utility and environmental sectors working with state and local governments. The LSLR Collaborative aims to assist communities in recognizing the need to remove lead lines, as well as provide tools to support local action to do so.
Certainly, funding to replace lead service lines is one of the most challenging hurdles in this effort. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates the cost for replacement nationwide ranges from 16 to 80 billion dollars. Fortunately, one of the tools the LSLR Collaborative provides is guidance on various funding models to help communities finance service line replacement projects.
Successful full lead service line replacement is most efficiently accomplished when all parties – property owners, residents, plumbers, water utilities and regulators – have a common understanding of the task at hand, how this new task is being integrated into existing practice, and where regulatory agencies, local government, and local public health experts support the community’s approach. The LSLR Collaborative website shares success stories where cities passed local legislation to support a replacement program, or tapped into state and federal resources – like state infrastructure replacement programs, community assistance initiatives and federal grants – to help offset costs.
For example, in 2000 Madison, Wisconsin became the first city in the country to pass a local ordinance requiring property owners to replace lead service lines. The utility had already begun replacing lead pipes in its system, but the real threat to contamination was the more than 8,000 service lines connecting to private property. To help offset the cost to property owners, the local utility offered to cover up to $1,000 using funds it generated by leasing part of its property to a telecommunications company for cellular antennas. By 2012, all of the city’s lead service lines had been replaced. It was a creative solution to a serious public health issue, and one that is now used as a model for other cities.
Another success story can be found about 200 miles northwest of Madison, in the small city of Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Here the town turned to a state Environmental Improvement Fund grant that provided $500,000 to reimburse property owners for replacing lead service lines. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources had allocated $11.8 million for lead service replacement projects statewide. Property owners in Eau Claire can now apply to receive up to $1,000 to put toward replacing their lead lines, which are estimated to cost between $850 and $2,200.
The Collaborative is careful to emphasize that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Every community is different, and the best funding mechanism will depend on a combination of factors unique to each. Deciding on a financing approach will require understanding the scope of the problem. This will take input from the local water utility in order to help define the problems and possible solutions. Determining variables like how many lead service lines a community has, the approximate population exposed, the historical baseline lead data at the tap and the estimated cost of service line replacement helps inform the best funding approach. Once these and other core factors are determined, a custom replacement plan can be developed.
Replacing lead service lines is just one of the many challenges facing our nation’s water infrastructure, and just like addressing the issue as a whole, there is no simple solution. We all must play a role – national, state and local community leaders, water utilities, and customers. The LSLR Collaborative is an excellent example of the way diverse individuals and organizations – spanning industries and sectors – are working together toward a common goal. Collectively, we can reduce risks associated with exposure to lead in drinking water, and accelerate voluntary lead service line replacement in communities across the country.