From The Editor | October 24, 2016

How Wisconsin Will Get The Lead Out

Peter Chawaga - editor

By Peter Chawaga

From New Jersey to Oregon, the nation’s sprawling network of lead drinking water pipes seems to have infected drinking water nearly everywhere. In the most high-profile examples — like that of Flint, MI — disadvantaged communities have been hit the hardest with no way of addressing the problem. In Wisconsin, authorities are going to make sure their lowest-income residents don’t face a similar fate.

The state’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has initiated a program to fund the replacement of lead service lines on qualifying properties, providing $14.5 million to all 38 disadvantaged communities that asked for help in a first-of-its kind program.

In Wisconsin, as in other states around the country, lead service lines were the go-to for drinking water infrastructure until the ’40s and ’50s, when they were gradually phased out of new construction. While homeowners are usually the ones responsible for the repair or replacement of service lines on their property, the DNR recognized that most would be unable to cover the costs, which average about $3,000 per home. Because the state’s water utilities aren’t allowed to use consumer rates for work on private property, somebody else would have to cover the cost. So the DNR stepped in.

“This is a public health issue,” said James Dick, DNR’s director of communications. “Lead service lines may deliver drinking water with elevated lead levels at the tap and even low levels of lead in the blood have been shown to affect IQ, the ability to pay attention, and academic achievement. We were able to find a way to come up with funding to help municipalities address the issue.”

The DNR had originally received $11.8 million from the U.S. EPA, but when the number and size of requests they received for help exceeded that cost, it successfully found more funding by re-opening past grants and accessing principal forgiveness, according to a DNR release.

“The DNR program takes advantage of a recent decision by the U.S. EPA that allows greater flexibility in allocating loan funds for water infrastructure projects,” said Dick. “Through the state’s Safe Drinking Water Loan Program, DNR now has the ability to provide disadvantaged municipalities with significant funding to help them cover the costs of lead service line replacements on private property.”

Dick said that the DNR qualifies “disadvantaged” municipalities based on factors like population, median household income, and unemployment trends. Because the program accesses federal dollars, benefiting communities had to meet a list of federal requirements as well.

“Under this program, disadvantaged municipalities with a population of less than 50,000 will be eligible for up to $300,000 for lead service line replacement costs on private property,” Dick said. “For medium-sized communities, that cap will be $500,000 and for the largest municipalities, the cap will be $1 million.”

It will be up to the communities to decide how exactly the funds are used. Milwaukee will receive the largest total, according to the DNR, as its eligible for $2.6 million to cover pipelines to homes, schools, and daycare centers.

“The program only provided funding for fiscal year 2016,” said Dick. “If the program proves successful, DNR would seek to provide a similar level of funding for the fiscal year starting July 1, 2017.”

It’s unclear how these efforts could help communities beyond Wisconsin. While every state has potential access to EPA grants and loans, it is up to them to design programs and apply for funding in ways that make sense for their residents.

“This is a state program we initiated with the EPA to find this funding source, so I’m not sure how similar it can be [in other states],” said Dick. “But any viable program that can assist municipalities in addressing the lead service line issue and protect public health is a good thing.”