News Feature | February 9, 2017

Wisconsin Lawmakers Consider Lead Service Line Bill, Irking Utilities

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome

milwaukee reg new (2)

Some water utilities are skeptical of a proposal by Wisconsin lawmakers aimed at warding off lead contamination of drinking water.

Under a bill proposed in the Wisconsin Senate, water systems can offer loans to customers to swap out lead service lines. The financing options include low-interest or no-interest loans and customer cost-sharing, among other possibilities, the Associated Press reported.

“The bill from GOP Sen. Robert Cowles would give homeowners a possible pathway to finance expensive replacements that can run as much as $5,000. Cowles' bill would let municipalities grant water utilities the authority to offer financing to customers,” the AP reported.

"We're trying to give more authority to water utilities to utilize the resources they have," said Cowles, head of the Senate Natural Resources Committee, per the report.

But some utilities and municipalities have doubts about this approach, according to the report. For instance, “municipalities want water utilities to be able to get approval from the [state regulators] for rate increases to fund financing programs,” the report said. Additional concerns, per the report:

Residents in places like Milwaukee — where 70,000 homes or businesses have lead service lines — have pushed back against proposals that leave some of the burden of paying for the expensive replacement to them. In Green Bay, which includes some of Cowles' district, about 4,000 homes have lead service lines.

Green Bay Water Utility General Manager Nancy Quirk pointed to issues the legislation does not address, per the report:

The proposal would leave it to municipalities and utilities to decide how much assistance to provide, but Quirk said utilities are limited by the fact that they can't easily raise rates to fund financing programs, an issue the bill doesn't address.

State Sen. LaTonya Johnson argued that the state should be doing more to finance the upgrades. She called the legislation "a small Band-Aid for a gaping wound," according to the AP.

Cowles, who introduced the legislation, called it a “step in the right direction,” in a statement.

Over 175,000 Wisconsin water customers have lead service lines, according to the report. Half are in Milwaukee County. Childhood exposure to drinking water contaminated by lead can lead to learning problems, according to the U.S. EPA. Ingestion can also be fatal. The agency notes that homes built before 1986 are more likely to have lead pipes.

Image credit: "Milwaukee Wis," Ron Reiring © 2009, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: