Removal fund covers up to 10% of Wisconsin’s private lead pipes needing replacement

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A lead service line is removed in Ashland, Wisconsin. The green circle at the bottom of the trench is the curb stop which dictates where the private portion of the water line begins. Image: Phil Wesner

By Taylor Haelterman

A Wisconsin lead service line replacement program got a $64 million funding boost this year from state and federal sources.

But it will only replace 5 to 10 percent of the state’s more than 200,000 privately owned water service lines, state officials said.

“Some more money needs to get into this effort,” said Becky Scott, the team leader for Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ lead service line replacement program.

“We’re trying to kickstart things but it’s a big issue for communities. They don’t really have the resources to cover it themselves, and it can be hard for homeowners to come up with the money to replace the lines.”

Wisconsin has received 45 applications from cities, including Milwaukee, Kenosha and Kaukauna, since the program launched in September 2020, Scott said. Many have recently entered or finished the public comment period.

A privately owned service line carries water from the utility’s water supply to a home. The utility provider owns the line up to the curb and the customer owns the line from that stop to the house.

Lead water lines risk leaching the metal into the homeowner’s drinking water. Lead consumption can damage the brain, nervous system, red blood cells and kidneys, according to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

“Lead, as I think we’re all aware, is quite toxic at any level and can get into the water through the service line,” Scott said. “So, getting them removed is definitely a high priority.”

The new funding for the private lead service line replacement program comes as loans from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Water State Revolving Fund. It is matched by the state. The loans for private line replacements receive loan forgiveness which will cover a certain amount of the debt.

The revolving fund is typically used for wastewater, but the Water Infrastructure Finance Transfer Act passed by Congress in October of 2019 allows states to transfer money from the clean water fund to replace lead lines.

All of the Great Lakes states are a part of the Clean Water State Revolving Fund program, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Scott predicts this funding will keep the program running for about 3 years.

Excavation is the first step of replacing this lead service line in Ashland, Wisconsin. Image: Phil Wesner

Kaukauna has been working to remove lead service lines for 10 years. But, until now, citizens had to pay for the replacements themselves, said Jeff Feldt, the general manager of Kaukauna Utilities.

In 2019, Kaukauna Utilities applied for approval from the Wisconsin Public Service Commission to use utility rates to fund up to half the cost of private lead service line removals. They were approved in 2020 but were unable to implement the program due to the pandemic.

With the additional funding from the Department of Natural Resources, the city plans to replace about 430 private owned lead lines, Feldt said.

“We feel over the next five years, if we get some of this funding, that we can have all the customer-owned service laterals replaced and have zero lead (customer lines),” Feldt said.

Kenosha Water Utility began replacing lines in 2018 when they too were approved by the Public Service Commission to help fund private replacements, said Curt Czarnecki, the general manager of Kenosha Water Utility.

But they have a lot of ground to cover before the city is lead free.

“Our best estimate is that we have roughly 9,000 potential locations that have lead service lines,” Czarnecki said.

That is about a third of their 31,000 customers.

Until now, line replacement has been voluntary in Kenosha, but the replacement numbers have slowed since 2018 and Czarnecki is hoping this additional funding may increase interest in removing the lead pipes.

“The only way to truly make sure that there is no lead in any drinking water within our community is to remove it all,” he said.

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