The Biden administration wants to eliminate lead water pipes. What does that mean for Wichita?

The City of Wichita is conducting an inventory of major water service lines throughout its system to comply with new federal regulations.

Water utilities across the country must take inventory of how many lead pipes they have — and where they are located — by October. The push comes alongside a stricter set of rules proposed by President Joe Biden that would eliminate all lead service lines within 10 years.

However, those rules drew backlash from Kansas Attorney General Kris Kobach, who joined a coalition of other states in arguing that the cost of replacing all lead pipes was too high and would ultimately fall on property owners. Estimates put the spending at between $28 billion and $60 billion, while the bipartisan infrastructure bill includes just $15 billion for replacing leading service lines.

Exposure to lead can seriously affect children's growth and development, and Congress banned new lead pipes in 1986. However, cities were not obliged to replace existing ones.

Now water utilities must at least locate existing main supply lines: both on the public and private sides.

Graphic courtesy of the City of Wichita

The lead pipes inside the house are privately owned.

Wichita has been replacing public utilities since the 1990s, said Laura Quick, utility optimization program manager for the city's public works department. She added that the city has since removed more than 10,000 lead pipes.

But the private side – the pipes that bring water from the network under the street into the houses – is a different story. Quick said there are a lot of private water lines that the city doesn't know much about.

“We have 50,000, over 50,000, still unknowns,” Quick said in February. “We have just started predictive modeling. So machine learning is being used to try to fill in some of the gaps based on the gaps that we know about.”

Quick said the effort is time and personnel intensive. In December, the city hired an engineering firm to help Wichita comply with the new rules. The contract is not to exceed $475,000.

Here are some frequently asked questions about the lead pipe program.

How do I find out if my private service line is made of lead?

According to the EPA, homes built before 1986 are more likely to contain lead.

With a magnet and a keychain you can find out what type of service connection you have in your home. The EPA has guidance on how to do this here. A licensed plumber could also inspect your service line to identify the material.

Do I have to notify the city if I have a leading service line?

You're not required to do this, but telling the city can help improve its algorithm and help it find other leading service lines.

“The more data we have, the better,” said Andrew Van Tassell, special projects coordinator for the Wichita Department of Public Works.

Van Tassell said homeowners or renters who alert the city to their main service could be eligible for free water testing.

Homeowners and renters can complete this survey to inform the city about their utility line material.

If my private connection is wired, do I need to replace it?

The city of Wichita says no.

“If you have a leading service line, you have no obligation to change it,” Van Tassell said. “But the EPA strongly recommends that this situation be remedied as quickly as possible based solely on the health risks.”

Quick said the goal of 100% lead pipe replacement is still an ambitious goal.

However, Kobach's coalition argues that Biden's proposed rule could be used to force private landowners to replace private lead pipes.

Who pays if I want to replace my private lead service connection?

Van Tassell said there may be public funding available to pay for the replacement in the future. But from now on, property owners will have to bear the costs themselves if they want to replace their main connection lines.

“Anything that is on private property is the responsibility of the homeowner at this point,” Quick said.

Kobach also expressed concerns that replacing lead pipes could increase water utility rates for customers.

“Americans are already burdened by rising energy and utility costs and oppressive inflation, and this proposal will only make matters worse,” he said in a press release.

Is there lead in the city's water now?

The city regularly tests its water for lead, Quick said. Between 2019 and 2021, none of the water tested was above the federal “action level” for lead, which triggers water treatment.

“At this point we are making compliant water,” Quick said.

You might also like

Comments are closed.