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Cities get more aggressive in removing lead pipes, legislators advance state plans to target water problems

The “Year of Clean Water” may have been declared in 2019, but 2020 is the year that local and state governments are taking more action to make clean water happen in places affected by a range of contaminants.

On Wednesday, the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee advanced a series of nine bills designed to tackle the state’s ongoing water pollution from nitrates, lead, PFAS, and runoff from new construction projects and agricultural fields. The legislation includes $10 million in funding.  

Four other bills that are part of the Speaker’s Water Quality Task Force –established by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and released early last month– do not require JFC approval because they do not spend money. The package of bills could go before the full Assembly on Tuesday and the Senate next Wednesday. 

Meanwhile, local governments are moving to make lead pipe replacement less of an option and more of a requirement for their residents, especially with increased ability to add financial incentives. 

When Eau Claire city officials implemented a lead pipe replacement program in 2017, city residents had the option of deciding if they wanted to pay to replace lead service lines to their homes whenever the city, as part of street repair projects, updated its portion of lead pipes that provide drinking water to those homes.

But starting this year, homeowners living along streets where utilities are being upgraded will be required to have lead pipes replaced, a safety measure city officials said is intended to protect people from an increased risk of lead poisoning, when lead pipes are disturbed during replacement of water mains.

On Jan. 14 the Eau Claire City Council voted unanimously to change lead service line replacement for affected property owners from voluntary to mandatory, an effort intended to prevent lead from leaching into residents’ drinking water and causing health issues. Lead is known to cause numerous health problems, including kidney and brain damage, neurological disorders, and, in extreme cases, death. 

“This was really a big deal for our city to take this step,” City Council member Andrew Werthmann said. “Safe drinking water is such an important issue.”

Lead seeping into drinking water is an issue of concern in various Wisconsin communities, as drinking water to many older homes is still conveyed through lead pipes. Milwaukee has garnered headlines for years because of high lead levels in its water supply due badly-outdated infrastructure. Tests conducted in 2016 showed more than one of every 10 children had blood lead levels above those the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers safe.

Milwaukee officials have launched efforts to replace lead service lines, a process projected to take decades to complete. This year’s city budget includes spending $13.6 million on lead service line replacement in more than 1,000 homes. The effort backed by Mayor Tom Barrett will spend another $8 million to assess and abate lead hazards in homes where children have been identified as having high lead levels. 

In addition, an additional $240,000 has been allocated to provide lead-poisoning education kits that include a lead-filter water pitcher and replacement water filters to 2,400 women giving birth in parts of Milwaukee identified as high-risk areas for children to be exposed to elevated lead levels.

During his State of the City speech Monday in Milwaukee, Barrett said those efforts and others have reduced lead poisoning in the city’s children by 70 percent since 2003. In the past three years, the mayor said, the city has replaced more than 2,500 lead water lines and has given 13,000 water filters to households. 

“We’ll continue to fight for state and federal funding to keep our children safe from all lead hazards,” he said. 

.Madison and some other Wisconsin cities are dealing with a different, newer water-related health challenge. The discovery of PFAS — commonly referred to as “forever chemicals” because they do not disintegrate — can accumulate in humans and have been linked to cancer and other health problems. The substance has been discovered in the water supply of Madison and other communities.

Last week Gov. Tony Evers signed a bill into law that prohibits the use of fluorinated firefighting foam, except in emergencies or in approved training areas, where the substance can be contained. The law also requires the state Department of Natural Resources be notified whenever foam containing PFAS is used. In addition, the state Senate has proposed bipartisan legislation that would spend $7.7 million to slow PFAS-related contamination and clean up areas already polluted with the substance. 

Groundwater pollution is an issue of concern in many rural parts of Wisconsin, where a growing number of residents report they can no longer drink water from their wells because it is contaminated with manure and fertilizers from farms. At the Clean Water Lobby Day in Madison earlier this month hosted by Wisconsin Conservation Voters, people from across the state reported growing groundwater pollution problems in their communities.

“We are hearing more reports about water contamination in rural areas all the time,” said Kerry Schumann, Wisconsin Conservation Voters executive director.

In Eau Claire, the City Council’s vote was prompted by concerns that failing to replace property owners’ portion of lead service lines when the city replaced its portion potentially endangered people’s health. The city treats its water to bind lead to pipes and keep it from drinking water. 

However, that protective coating can be disturbed when pipes are moved, such as when old water mains are replaced with new ones during street construction. If homes served by those mains — some of which are 135 years old — have lead service lines, people living there are at risk of potential poisoning by the harmful metal.   

“It’s not a matter of when those old water mains are going to break, but when,” Eau Claire community services director Jeff Pippenger said. “The vote by the council on this issue is about protecting public safety.”

According to city statistics, the average cost of replacing Eau Claire homeowners’ portions of lead service lines is $2,400, though most of that potential homeowner cost can be covered by grants. 

Besides better protecting residents, the City Council’s action is intended to boost the city’s chances of obtaining additional grant money for future lead pipe replacements. In 2017 and 2018, the city received $800,000 in DNR grants for that purpose. No funding was available in 2019, but this year the city plans to seek another $400,000 this year, Pippenger said. Since 2017, lead service lines have been replaced at 193 Eau Claire homes. 

While measures approved by the Joint Finance Committee will help, much more is needed to ensure Wisconsin’s water is safe to drink, public health and environmental advocates said. For example, Milwaukee is still home to more than 75,000 lead service lines, and the cost of replacing them is estimated to cost at least $750 million, work projected to take decades.

Milwaukee resident Katie Doss knows all too well about the adverse impacts of lead poisoning. Her 4-year-old granddaughter suffers health problems because of lead exposure, prompting Doss to become part of an effort to educate Milwaukee residents about the dangers of lead poisoning.

“We’re doing what we can to educate people about the dangers of lead, but there is so much left to do,” she said.

In Eau Claire, Pippenger said he would like to remove all lead pipes from drinking water hookups at an estimated 830 homes immediately. But that isn’t feasible, given the costs of street and infrastructure repairs. If the city continues to receive grant money, and given the future street repair schedule, he estimated the city’s drinking water system will be lead pipe free in 15 to 20 years. 

“Unfortunately, this isn’t going to happen overnight,” he said. “But the good news is we are making progress.”

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