By Maureen Cunningham
One of the great water-management and societal challenges of our time is to get the lead out of our nation’s drinking water — a daunting but achievable task, if approached correctly.
In recent months, there have been national headlines on the devastating effect the COVID-19 pandemic has had on children’s math and reading scores across the country, leading to a swift call to action by educators, parents, and politicians to rectify this.1 What has not garnered as much attention, but has had similar educational effects for children — as well as detrimental health impacts — is lead poisoning, which affects the ability of children to learn, pay attention, and succeed academically.2 Exposure to lead also results in societal impacts that cost billions of dollars, if not more,3 with an immeasurable cost to our quality of life. There are 86,000 or more lead exposures among children each year, which is far too many.4 Though lead pipes are only one source of lead poisoning, the solution is relatively straightforward: Replace the lead service lines (LSLs) carrying our drinking water.
In 2022, Newark, NJ, became one of only about a dozen cities across the country — and the largest of them — to replace all of its 23,000 lead pipes, though smaller cities, including Framingham, MA; Spokane, WA; Stoughton, WI; Lansing, MI, and others have also replaced theirs.
In 2023, the question is: How do we position more communities across the country to replace their lead pipes? EPIC’s top 10 list of recommendations empowers utilities, communities, and policymakers with tangible steps forward and provides a road map to ensure that lead becomes a thing of the past — not over our lifetimes, but over the next decade.5
1. Elevate and support lead-free water champions.
Local and community leaders can — and should — play a key role in helping their communities advance lead service line replacements (LSLR). Often, the communities that are moving forward in this have the support of their local officials, backed by strong utility leaders. From passing resolutions and ordinances to removing administrative barriers and raising funds, local government leaders can dictate the speeds and scales of their programs. Mayor Lombardi of North Providence, RI, was so moved by the lead crisis in Flint, MI, that he subsequently found funding to replace lead pipes for many of his town’s low-income residents. Edgerton, WI, passed a municipal resolution in 2022, setting a five-year timeline to replace its lead pipes.6 Replacing an estimated 10 million lead pipes in 11,000 communities will take a groundswell of leaders and champions over the next decade.
In 2023, the question is: How do we position more communities across the country to replace their lead pipes?
2. Locate and map lead service lines quickly — and replace as you go
Finding and mapping lead service lines through inventories is one of the first steps in developing a successful LSLR, and it includes good record-keeping7 and data-management practices.8 The U.S. EPA August 2022 Guidance for Developing and Maintaining a Service Line Inventory recommends that water systems complete inventories at the same time as replacement efforts and “as soon as possible,” and provides an inventory template.9 States like Illinois, Michigan, and New Jersey have set more aggressive inventory deadlines, earlier than the federal government’s October 2024 deadline — and other states could follow suit.
Inventories are essential in enabling a community to understand the extent and location of the problem and to be able put together plans for financing, prioritizing equity, and replacing pipes. Municipalities that finalize inventories not only have a better idea of costs, but they will also be in a better position to access funding while it’s available. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), for example, with its $15 billion for LSLR, has a five-year distribution window.
3. Embrace new and emerging technologies to replace lead service lines.
Better technologies and innovations are emerging every day and pushing the needle on how fast municipalities can not only replace lead pipes, but also help digitize paper records, locate LSLs, and create visual tools. The EPA Guidance references the use of predictive modeling, ground-penetrating radar, web maps, field applications, and closed-circuit television inspections in LSLR programs. Machine learning can be used to predict where LSLs are likely to exist based on information about the properties, historical data, work done in the vicinity, and the evidence from inspections or replacements.10 Companies highlighted in EPIC’s Menu of Options11 and in the 2021 Water Data Prize12 offer expertise in these and other technological solutions that can save utilities time and money — both critical aspects of getting the lead out faster and more efficiently.13
4. Make information accessible to the public — before there’s a crisis.
As municipalities with water crises have realized, having the trust of the public is critical; but once lost, it’s harder to regain. Utilities need to communicate earlier, better, and at every milestone that occurs in their program — and be in sync with their elected officials. Utilities need to take the extra step to conduct better outreach to communities, bringing the information to where residents are, across various social media platforms and venues, and in the format and language they need.14 Using lead dashboards, as Benton Harbor, MI,15 and Platteville, WI,16 both have done, will help keep important LSLR milestones and progress in the public eye.
5. Engage and make joint decisions with community partners.
Faith-based groups, homeowner associations, community-based organizations, and other local stakeholders can all be partners with utilities in replacing lead pipes. These stakeholders can help engage with residents, urging them to test their water and check the composition of their service lines, giving them information about the community’s LSLR program, identifying neighborhoods most at risk, and educating on lead risks. Community partners can also work in tandem with the utility in reaching otherwise hard-to-reach residents in different venues, formats, and languages, including going door-to-door. The group called Benton Harbor Team Solutions, for example, hosts a radio show to inform residents on lead-related progress.17
6. Focus on equity and prioritizing at-risk populations in replacement efforts.
Utilities can ensure an equitable distribution of funds at the local level by prioritizing at-risk, low-income, and socially vulnerable populations, neighborhoods, and communities in replacement efforts and by covering homeowners’ costs. Identifying demographic information, environmental risks, and social vulnerability indexes alongside inventories and mapping can help prioritize those most at risk. An example is the New Jersey Water Risk and Equity Map, which enables users to visualize where LSLs are located, alongside other risks and income levels.18
7. Develop a multi-year financing plan, taking advantage of multiple funding sources.
Costs to replace lead pipes vary greatly, and cost savings need to be explored. LSLR for one pipe, before inflation, was as low as $1,200 in some parts of the Midwest, and up to $27,000 in Chicago.
While IIJA has a portion of the total funding needed to replace every LSL in the country through the Drinking Water State Revolving Funds (DWSRFs), there are other federal sources, that can be combined: Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation (WIIN) for small, underserved, and disadvantaged communities, accessed by Trenton, NJ; the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA), which provides long-term, low-cost supplemental loans, accessed by Englewood, CO, and Chicago, IL; the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) State and Local Fiscal Recovery Fund (SLFRF), accessed by Newburgh, NY, and Pittsburgh, PA; the USDA Rural Development Program, which provides low-interest, fixed-rate loans to smaller communities, accessed by Bloomer, WI; and HUD’s Community Development Block Grant (CDBG), targeting low- and moderate-income residents, accessed by North Providence, RI, and Toledo, OH.
Finding and mapping lead service lines through inventories is one of the first steps in developing a successful LSLR, and includes good record-keeping and data-management practices.
States also have funding programs for LSLR, such as the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA), the Michigan Clean Water Plan, and the New York Water Infrastructure Improvement Act (WIIA), in addition to new, voter-approved bond act funds, H2Ohio and the Pennsylvania Infrastructure Investment Authority (PENNVEST).
In addition to public funds, financing through municipal bonds (even for private-side replacements) is possible19 for those with the capacity to take on debt as well as impact bonds used in Newark, NJ.20 There is also a bigger role for banks to play in LSLR, as evidenced by the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago.21
8. Advance equity, innovation, and efficiencies through contracting and better procurement.
The contracting and procurement phase of LSLR is an opportunity for policy change and improvements. A focus on cost-saving measures, aggressive timelines, prevailing wages, local workforce training, and prioritizing local-, women-, and minority-owned labor and businesses can all be set in the bid contracts that municipalities use to procure the necessary workforce, ensuring alignment with state procurement laws.
The sheer number of communities with LSLs may require more innovation in contracting and procurement. Public-private partnerships (P3s), community-based partnerships (CBPs), and pay-for-success contracting can be used to create efficiencies of scale and faster LSLR,22 especially if bureaucratic hurdles are removed and multisystem applications are made possible and more accessible to utilities.
9. Advance policy changes to ensure a more equitable distribution of funds.
While funding is often pointed to as the main solution, key policy changes at the local, state, and federal levels can make a difference. Municipalities can pass ordinances to mandate full service-line replacement, grant the right of entry to a property even if the owner does not, ensure LSLR at the time of a real estate or tenant transfer, and reimburse homeowner costs. Cities like Benton Harbor, MI; Malden, MA; and Green Bay, Madison, and Milwaukee, WI, have all passed local laws and ordinances.
States, too, have roles to play in prioritizing equity, ensuring proactive notification requirements, standardizing and centralizing inventory data (and making it publicly accessible), setting faster timelines, and removing other bureaucratic hurdles. Illinois, Michigan, and New Jersey have all accomplished this in varying degrees through legislation.
At the federal level, needed policy changes include more definitive language on the use of all public funds for private-side LSLR, expanded definitions of LSLs, and more equitable distribution of IIJA funds to lead-burdened states. And particular to IIJA funds through DWSRFs, several policy reforms are needed, such as offering 0% interest loans for all LSLR projects, changing how disadvantaged communities are defined and principal forgiveness loans are distributed to ensure equity, enabling census blocks rather than water system boundaries to determine disadvantaged eligibility, and maximizing the use of set-aside funds for LSLR pre-construction tasks. The federal government can also play a role in ensuring that state Intended Use Plan (IUP) processes and reporting requirements are standardized; encouraging inventories to be standardized, centralized, and publicly available; and tracking LSLR funding and replacement rates across the country.
10. Match the pace of lead pipe replacement with the urgency of the problem.
Let’s face it: Replacing 100% of the 10 million pipes scattered throughout the country is no easy feat — and doing it faster will be even more difficult.
Though slow is the easiest path forward, we cannot afford to see our children and our society dealing with the far-reaching and generational effects of lead poisoning when the solutions are at hand. This is truly an “all hands on deck” moment, requiring all levels of government, nonprofits, community groups, and the private sector. Today, there is a momentum to get the lead out created by the Biden-Harris administration not seen before in our lifetimes. We need to seize this momentum and ensure that the pace of our efforts matches the true urgency of this solvable problem.
About The Author
Maureen is the chief strategy officer & director of water strategy of EPIC. Prior to joining EPIC in 2020, Maureen was senior director for Clean Water at Environmental Advocates NY, where she championed statewide legislation and policies, and executive director of the Hudson River Watershed Alliance, where she helped dozens of community groups protect their water resources. Maureen holds a master’s degree from the Yale School of the Environment and a bachelor’s degree from the American University. Maureen also serves as a town council member outside of Albany, NY.
- Mervosh, S. and Wu, A. (2022) Math Scores Fell in Nearly Every State, and Reading Dipped on National Exam. [online] The New York Times. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/10/24/us/math-reading-scores-pandemic.html
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022). Lead Poisoning Prevention. [online] CDC. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead/ prevention/default.htm#:~:text=Even%20low%20levels%20of%20 lead,damage%20to%20their%20child’s%20health
- Muennig, P. (2009) The social costs of childhood lead exposure in the postlead regulation era. [online] National Library of Medicine. Available at: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19736339/
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (n.d.). Blood Lead Levels (µg/ dL) among U.S. Children < 72 Months of Age, by State, Year, and Blood Lead Level (BLL) Group. [online] CDC. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead/docs/cbls-national-data-table-508.pdf
- Cunningham, M., Egorov, O., Gonzalez, B. (2022) From the ground up: A guide to replacing the nation’s toxic lead pipes over the next decade. [online] Environmental Policy Innovation Center. Available at: https://static1.squarespace.com/static/611cc20b78b5f677dad664ab/t/6398a78db5f55f5b34c7a510/1670948765897/EPIC_From+the+Ground+Up.pdf
- Edgerton’s resolution is available at: https://www.cityofedgerton.com/_files/ugd/db53a9_579ca5c9d9f34eb0aba1f06e3419751b.pdf
- Cunningham, M. (2022) Echoing Newark: How American Cities Can Replicate Newark’s Success in Replacing Over 23,000 Lead Pipes in Under Three Years. [online] Environmental Policy Innovation Center. Available at: https://www.policyinnovation.org/blog/echoing-newark-how-american-citiescan-replicate-newarks-success-in-replacing-over-23000-lead-pipes-in-underthree-years
- Miller, J. (2022) Lead-Free Water Challenge: What We Learned About Data Management and Lead Service Line Inventories. [online] Environmental Policy Innovation Center. Available at: https://www.policyinnovation.org/blog/lead-free-water-challenge-what-we-learned-about-data-management-andlead-service-line-inventories
- The United States Environmental Protection Agency. (2022) Guidance for Developing and Maintaining a Service Line Inventory. [online] EPA. Available at: https://www.epa.gov/system/files/documents/2022-08/Inventory%20Guidance_August%202022_508%20compliant.pdf
- Greiling, D. and Robinson, I. (2022) Lead-Free Water Challenge: What We Learned About How To Prepare Your Inventory Without Knowing Everything Yet. [online] Environmental Policy Innovation Center. Available at: https:// www.policyinnovation.org/blog/what-we-learned-about-the-lead-free-waterchallenge-and-working-with-small-and-medium-sized-municipalities-how-toprepare-your-service-line-material-inventory-without-knowing-everything-yet
- Cunningham, M. et al. (2022) Menu of Options: Data and Technology To Replace Lead Pipes Faster” [online] Environmental Policy Innovation Center. Available at: https://www.policyinnovation.org/publications/menu-of-optionsdata-and-technology-to-replace-lead-pipes-faster
- Cunningham, M. et al. (2022) “Results and Recommendations from the 2021 Water Data Prize” [online] Environmental Policy Innovation Center. Available at: https://www.policyinnovation.org/publications/tap-into-innovation-toreplace-lead-pipes
- Abernethy, J. and Schwartz, E. (2021) Statistical Modeling In Support Of Lead Service Line Identification, Inventory, And Replacement. [online] Water Online. Available at: https://www.wateronline.com/doc/statisticalmodeling-in-support-of-lead-service-line-identification-inventory-andreplacement-0001
- McGill, M. (2022) Lead-Free Water Challenge: What We Learned About Proactive Communications Around Lead Service Line Replacement. [online] Environmental Policy Innovation Center. Available at: https://www.policyinnovation.org/blog/lead-free-water-challenge-what-we-learned-aboutproactive-communications-around-lead-service-line-replacement
- Benton Harbor’s dashboard is available at: https://bhmi.maps.arcgis.com/apps/dashboards/74354d4daa52471f93dffd7dd5814b14
- Platteville’s dashboard is available at: https://platteville.maps.arcgis.com/apps/dashboards/b3603346018c47c29ba7829e7b1946ca
- Benton Harbor Team Solutions Radio Highlights Right Of Entry, Bottled Water Recycling. (2022). [online] Benton Spirit News. Available at: https://bentonspiritnews.com/benton-harbor-team-solutions-radio-highlights-rightof-entry-bottled-water-p7174-93.htm
- The NJ equity map is available at: https://njwaterequity.rutgers.edu/
- The WaterNow Tap Into Resilience Toolkit is available at: https://tapin.waternow.org/toolkit/?item=debt
- Cunningham, M. Echoing Newark: How American Cities Can Replicate Newark’s Success in Replacing Over 23,000 Lead Pipes in Under Three Years.
- The Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago’s work on LSLR is available at: https://www.chicagofed.org/research/lead/about
- Male, T. et al. (2021. Replacing Toxic Lead Pipes Faster: Innovative Procurement and Financing Approaches Are Just as Important as Federal Funding. [online] Environmental Policy Innovation Center. Available At: https://www.policyinnovation.org/publications/replacingtoxicleadwaterpipesfaster