What to know about a new report on lead pipe replacement in Wisconsin

MADISON – Lead pipes are in more focus than ever in Wisconsin as the state makes a concerted effort to remove the toxic metal from all water supply lines across the state.

But the task will be extensive and very costly, according to a new report from the nonpartisan Wisconsin Policy Forum. The report shows how much work has been done in Wisconsin and how much remains to be done, particularly in Milwaukee.

Here’s what the Policy Forum said in its latest report.

Why is it so important to engage with leads?

Lead ingestion is harmful to health and can limit brain development, affect the nervous system and often lead to reduced mental performance in children.

Dust and paint chips from cracked or peeling lead paint often pose the greatest risk, but leaded drinking water still accounts for 10 to 20 percent of American children’s lead intake, and that number increases when formula-fed infants are taken into account.

While lead consumption is unhealthy for adults, children are even more at risk.

In Milwaukee, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services reported in 2018 that 9.2% of children age 5 or younger in Milwaukee have elevated blood lead levels.

Is there a way to protect residents if the lead pipes are not removed?

Yes, water treatment plants can take steps to slow or prevent lead from flaking off the inside of pipes and entering the water flowing into a home.

According to the report, water utilities sometimes use phosphates to coat the inside of pipes, but this solution is not permanent.

“The coating can be affected by changes in water chemistry or work on water pipes, which can result in contaminated water,” the report said. “Because even coated lead pipes carry some risk, removal is the safest option in the long term.”

More:Wausau is working to address lead and PFAS. The Biden administration says others should do the same

Where is lead used?

Lead was not used in Wisconsin in the pipes that carry water from the city’s water treatment plant to homes, but it was used in many service pipes that carry water from city infrastructure under streets and up to homes.

Lead was used for pipes because of its flexibility – it could be bent around trees or rocks – and because there was less chance of the pipes bursting when the ground froze.

Lead was also sometimes used as solder to join pipes in homes and at times as part of indoor plumbing.

The use of lead fittings began to decline after the 1930s and was stopped by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1986.

More:There are still lead water fixtures in Wisconsin schools. Here’s what that means

Who owns the leading service lines?

According to the report, ownership of the service lines that connect homes to water supplies is often mixed.

Cities typically have the line from the main water main up to and including a shut-off valve. Homeowners typically own the remainder of the line to the house. Sometimes the city owns the entire route.

Where are the lead pipes in the state?

Tom Perez, an adviser to President Joe Biden, meets with Wausau Mayor Katie Rosenberg and Miles Guerrero, 3, to turn on the water at Miles' great-grandmother's home during a media event on Thursday, Nov. 9, 2023.  The home's old water supply line was replaced with a lead-free connection in Wausau, Wisconsin.  Perez was in town to highlight President Biden's administration's actions on clean drinking water.

According to the Policy Forum, Wisconsin has more than 150,000 lead service lines in 92 communities. More than 73,000 have been replaced since 1998, including 37,000 since 2018.

In Milwaukee, the majority of pipes need to be replaced, with over 70,000 lead pipes. According to Milwaukee Water Works, approximately 6,300 main service lines have been replaced since the systematic replacement in 2017.

The city hopes to replace all lead pipes over the next 20 years, with 1,200 to be replaced in 2023, 2,200 in 2024 and 2,700 in 2025. However, that pace must accelerate if the city wants to meet that schedule, the report says.

More:Wausau is working to address lead and PFAS. The Biden administration says others should do the same

Outside of Milwaukee, the Policy Forum report estimates that a handful of other communities may have large amounts of laterals, such as Shorewood, Whitefish Bay, Schofield, Wausau, Superior and Racine.

Data on where lead laterals are located in Wisconsin

There is a lack of data on where lead laterals are located. A number of communities lack data about what pipes are made of, but the state is making more targeted efforts to have water utilities examine and record where pipe replacement is needed.

“It is difficult to estimate the number of lead service lines still serving homes and businesses in Wisconsin because these lines are underground and were installed decades ago,” the report said. “Data collected by the Public Service Commission estimates that the estimated number of utility-owned lines is over 158,000 and the number of customer-owned lines is over 141,000.”

More:There are still lead water fixtures in Wisconsin schools. Here’s what that means

Who pays for lead pipe replacement?

When lead pipes are replaced, the costs are often passed on to the water utility’s customers.

In some places, such as Madison, where all remaining lead pipes were replaced, the city covered half the cost of customers’ plumbing, while the other half was paid by the homeowner.

But recently the federal government began pouring more resources into replacing private mainline electric providers, making $90.6 million available to Wisconsin utilities in forgivable loans. Recent funding under the bipartisan infrastructure bill provided an additional $373 million to the state.

But that funding may not be enough. The Policy Forum report estimates that it could cost between $500 million and $600 million to replace each lead lateral, in addition to the cost to customers.

In Milwaukee, the city is poised to receive $30 million from the federal government in 2024 to eliminate lead pipes. Pipes are replaced when water mains or certain paving projects are replaced, the report said, or when side pipes begin to leak or become damaged.

Milwaukee Water Works has indicated that there may be future ordinance changes that could result in customers no longer being charged for the exchange, and that rental property tenants, in addition to landlords, may also consent to the exchange.

“The plan prioritizes efforts based on socioeconomic factors, the presence of elevated lead levels among residents, and the density of lead service lines in the area,” the report states.

More:Milwaukee is disinfecting its water to ensure the safety of residents. Here’s what you should know:

Laura Schulte can be reached at [email protected] and on X at @SchulteLaura.

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