This old part of a water main is among many being replaced in Eau Claire as part of an effort to get rid of water lines containing lead. (Photo by Julian Emerson)
This old part of a water main is among many being replaced in Eau Claire as part of an effort to get rid of water lines containing lead. (Photo by Julian Emerson)

The bipartisan infrastructure legislation that Biden recently signed includes $15 billion to replace lead pipes across the country.

Montana Birt unspooled a flexible metal line, bit by bit, as a worker in a dug-out hole below fed it into a pipe buried about 10 feet below the ground’s surface. 

A short time later another worker carefully maneuvered the arm of a machine down into the dug-out space, then maneuvered slowly to remove a rust-covered, 38-foot-long metal pipe that fed drinking water to a home along Highland Avenue in Eau Claire.  

“It feels good to get another one out of there,” Birt’s son, Cody, who operates Stanley-based Montana & Son Grading with his father, said late Tuesday morning after pulling the old lead-lined water pipe from underground. 

Such lead pipe replacement efforts will receive a major boost with the passage of the infrastructure bill Congress approved earlier this month that was signed into law Monday by President Joe Biden. Included in the $1 trillion infrastructure measure is $15 billion to replace lead pipes used for drinking water across the country, along with water-related upgrades and funding to address PFAS remediation efforts. 

While it is not yet clear how much of the lead-pipe remediation funding will go to Wisconsin, it will undoubtedly make a dent in efforts to replace the state’s estimated 176,000 remaining lead service pipes. Houses built before 1950 are the most likely to have lead water lines.

As part of the infrastructure spending, Wisconsin is expected to receive $841 million to address water infrastructure overall during the next five years in addition to nearly $6 billion toward roads, bridges, and public transit and $100 million for broadband expansion.

Additional funding for lead water pipe removal is badly needed, local government leaders in Wisconsin said. They praised the infrastructure deal, saying it’s necessary to not only replace lead pipes but to address such issues as roads in need of repair, unsafe bridges, and the need for improved broadband.

“We’re very optimistic with the new infrastructure bill that there’s going to be additional funds for lead service replacement,” Eau Claire Utilities Manager Lane Berg said. 

Montana Birt, left, works to guide the removal of a lead service line Tuesday from an Eau Claire home as his son Cody operates a machine pulling the line from underground. The Birts have been busy this summer and fall removing lead service lines from homes in Eau Claire, where officials have boosted their efforts to replace water pipes containing lead. (Photo by Julian Emerson)

Milwaukee is home to Wisconsin’s biggest lead pipe problem, with an estimated 67,000 lead service lines serving homes. City officials have slowly reduced that figure, but without additional funding, that process is far too slow, they said. 

The extra funding to replace lead pipes provided by the infrastructure deal will provide that effort with a much-needed boost, said Kevin Shafer, executive director of the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District. Without those dollars, Shafer said, the city has been unable to pay for pipe replacement. 

“Flooding, drought, sewer overflows, lead pipes, and water pollution are all public health challenges that can be mitigated with infrastructure improvements,” he said. “Unfortunately, our cash-strapped cities cannot afford these improvements.”

Lead is known to pose numerous health risks to humans, ranging from hypertension to anemia to kidney dysfunction. Public health officials have said removing lead service lines from municipal drinking water systems should be a priority.

Despite those concerns, in June the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee rejected a measure proposed by Gov. Tony Evers’ that would have included $40 million to help homeowners pay to replace lead service lines, the water pipes that connect public water mains to individual homes. The Republican-led Legislature had rejected a previous, similar effort in 2019, saying too much money would have gone to Milwaukee—the state’s largest city and the one most affected by the issue.

Vital Funding

Milwaukee is far from alone among Wisconsin cities that have a significant number of lead water service lines still serving homes. For instance, in Wausau, nearly 3 of every 10 of those lines, or about 8,500, contains lead. That figure is similar in Oshkosh, home to more than 7,000 lead service lines. Other communities, such as Manitowoc and Fond du Lac, also have significant percentages of lead service lines in their drinking water systems. 

RELATED: Biden’s Infrastructure Bill Passed. Here’s What it Means for Wisconsin.

Some communities have utilized state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) grants to remove and replace lead service lines. This year the agency is providing $63.8 million to communities for lead abatement issues, allowing homeowners to access those funds to help pay for removal costs. That funding is made available by the US Environmental Protection Agency.

Wausau is among the communities that access DNR funding. The city has increased payments to homeowners to replace lead lines. But those dollars cover replacement costs for about 80 service lines per year, meaning it would take decades to replace all lead lines at that rate. 

The city’s Utility Commission recently directed city staff to devise a plan, using  funding from Biden’s American Rescue Plan COVID-19 relief package, to replace them in the next 15 years, making infrastructure bill funding vital to speeding up lead pipe replacement, Mayor Katie Rosenberg said. 

“The infrastructure bill could help us either by allowing us to use [it] as a funding source, or move quickly on to our replacement schedule,” she said, noting finding enough plumbers to handle that workload could prove challenging.  

Successful Effort

Eau Claire has accessed the DNR grant program since 2017. Funding the cost of lead pipe replacement has helped more than double the number of service lines replaced in Eau Claire this year, Berg said. Previously, homeowners had to front the $2,600 cost, but this year the city decided to use its funding to make direct payments to the contractor replacing pipes. 

An employee of Montana & Son Grading works Tuesday in Eau Claire digging a hole to access a water line that contains lead and would be replaced. (Photo by Julian Emerson)

In addition, Berg said, his employees canvassed neighborhoods during evenings to connect directly with homeowners with lead service lines to notify them about the new payment plan and urge them to take part. 

Those efforts appear to have been successful. Last year, lead service lines were replaced at 80 properties; this year that number will top 200. The number of lead water lines has decreased significantly the past couple of years and now totals about 600 privately owned ones and 240 on public property, Berg said, noting the city hopes to remove the last of its lead water lines within three years. 

Others are taking notice of Eau Claire’s success in removing its lead water pipes. Berg said he receives phone calls from city officials across Wisconsin and from as far away as New York and California asking him for the secret to success. 

“It’s really just doing the work to write the grants, and being proactive trying to reach out to people to let them know that it’s important to replace their lead pipes, and that the money is there,” he said. “Now, with the infrastructure bill, we are going to have even more opportunities to do that.”  

Correction: Eau Claire has about 240 lead pipes on public property, not 280.