Wisconsin cities are between a rock and a hard place when it comes to replacing lead pipes with those of an environmentally neutral material.
Curt Witynski, J.D. assistant director, League of Wisconsin Municipalities, said that this issue has been discussed for years. “Most recently, the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, Wisconsin Rural Water Association and an association of large municipal water utilities worked with Sen. Rob Cowles to introduce some legislation.”
2017 Senate Bill 48 would allow water public utilities to establish financial assistance programs for its customers, with Witynski stating, “The Senate was scheduled to take up the bill one week in April, but leadership withdrew the bill at the last minute due to concerns raised by Miller-Coors over the bill. They are concerned that large water users like them will foot most of the bill of the program.” He added, “Their concern is misplaced and the authors are attempting to work it out.”
Witynski believes water users of all types will be charged as they have been. It is then true that the rates from all users will go into whatever plan a city comes up with to help out homeowners with their lead service line replacements. But it isn’t clear or stated in the bill what type of program that will be. It could be a low-interest loan or a rebate program, or it could include some kind of grant.
Input was also gathered on the bill from Wisconsin cities and towns. Keith Haas, general manager of Racine Water and Wastewater Utilities, said, “Some of my colleagues and I did get a chance to comment on the draft legislation. The legislation is simply another tool in the toolbox for a city or water utility to use if they view the lead and copper issue as a priority in their community and assuming they have the financial wherewithal to be able to borrow the money to begin a program considering all of the rest of the pressures facing city government from a borrowing perspective.”
Wisconsin Department of Natural Resource grants help for now
Monies from the Wisconsin DNR aid the private side of lead service lines replacement. For cities to use these funds, they need to first send in a “notice of intent.” Money from the DNR can be used in several different ways.
Robin Schmidt, environmental loans section chief, said, “Basically, municipalities are eligible for this program and there are several options for how they choose to implement the program. These options are discussed on our webpage as are program requirements. These are not grants, perse, but loans for which 100 percent of the principal is forgiven, so it does act like a grant. We only have funds for two years so the program will end at the conclusion of SFY 2018, unless other funding becomes available. For SFY 2017, 38 municipalities applied for funding. And for SFY 2018, 42 municipalities are eligible to apply for funding, the deadline for which is June 30, 2017.”
Chad Regalia, chief engineer of Racine Water and Wastewater Utilities, said, “Racine, Wis., began doing the lead (service line) rebate program in October 2016 and is using state DNR money, which is guaranteed for three years after it is first paid out to the customer. They will probably finish by 2021.” Projects started in 2018 would finish paying out in 2021, so after 2022 this would be at their cost, explained Regalia. The city money for the public portion of the project is paid for through water rates.
What was the issue that got the program started? “Racine has been replacing the public portion for that last 10 years,” said Regalia. “We recently began doing private portion because the money was made available to the state. The homeowner hires the plumber, the plumber does the work and we pay the plumber the first $2,500. The private portion typically costs $2,500 to $3,000. It’s a good improvement to your house basically free.”
For other cities facing similar situations, Regalia said, “Check with your state to see if there’s funding available. Begin to inform/ educate if the money is available.”
The biggest challenge for Racine has been getting people interested in using the funds. Regalia said, “Getting people educated to use the rebate and to take part in it is a challenge. People may not want to mess up their basement or front yard. We try to document what their private service is — copper? lead? We do inspections for free or they could hire a plumber.” This hopefully indicates where there is a problem
Racine has been trying to prioritize who gets the replacement service lines first. Regalia said, “If we do the public portion in the street, those private services are higher priority. If the lead service is leaking, we want to use the money to fix the leak.”
For Racine, the DNR said the city could have $500,000 for 2017 based on the size of the utility, number of customers and the 10,000 lead service lines to replace out of 34,000 customers. The DNR has to
apportion out their money based off each community’s need.
“2018 should be similar. For that we can do 200 replacements. Guessing what’s lead, based on year built, comes to 10,000 leads to replace. For FY 2017 we have $500,000 and have three years to spend it. We know there’s 2018 money. We’re not sure about 2019 and 2020 state moneys.” Regalia also mentioned that this was a pilot program the city is trying with the state’s funding and not meant to be the final resolution to replacing all 10,000 private leads that might exist in its system.
Haas gave another perspective on Racine’s lead service line replacements and the DNR help. “The Racine water utility has been budgeting about $250,000 a year for the last 20 years to remove lead services from the public right of way when we replace aging water mains. We have 34,500 metered accounts.
“Assuming we have about 10,000 lead services in the public right of way and another 10,000 on private property, and it costs about $5,000 to remove one in the street and another $2,000 to replace one in a front yard; the price tag in the right of way is $50,000,000 and on private property another $20,000,000. At a rate of $250,000 per year in our budget, it would take 200 years. At $1,000,000 per year just 50 years for the public side of the service. With the passage of the lead and copper rule in the late ’80s and early ’90s, we knew that the writing was on the wall to deal with lead in the distribution system.”
Even with some limited funds being made available at this time from the Wisconsin DNR, Haas agreed it is like “pulling teeth” to get homeowners to use free funds to replace their lead service lines, agreeing that communicating the need to the homeowners is a big challenge in this type project.
Racine is not alone. Clintonville, population 104, has also taken advantage of the Wisconsin DNR lead service line replacement funds. It began getting all the paperwork together last July and started repairs in April. The DNR money was a major incentive to help replace customer service lines, which in Clintonville covers all the homeowner’s part. The city side of the project will come out of the city budget.
David Tichinel, water and waste water manager, said he would tell other cities “to work on this quite diligently since we don’t know what new lead and copper rules will be.” The biggest challenge so far has been finding all the areas where the lead was in the houses. Tichinel said, “We went door to door and used surveys and phone calls.”
To learn about the Wisconsin DNR’s lead service line replacement program, visit http://dnr.wi.gov/Aid/documents/EIF/leadServiceLineFunding.html.
Case study: Madison, Wis., gets head start
According to Amy Barrilleaux, Madison public information officer, “In 2001, Madison Water Utility launched its Lead Service Replacement Program aimed at physically replacing every single known lead service pipe in the city, more than 8,000 in all. The landmark program would take 11 years to complete and cost $15.5 million.” There were 5,600 pipes replaced on homeowners’ properties. When the EPA went to upgrade its 25-year-old policy for lead and copper in water, Madison’s experience was a major part of the discussion.
Many people in Madison had already had their portion of the service replaced in the decades since 1930. Madison banned lead water service lines in the late 1920s, making the replacement project not as large as for some other cities.
Madison was the first city in Wisconsin to take the step of replacing pipes and there was pushback. First, the EPA said that chemical additives were the way to go to lessen lead in water, but Madison did some studies showing that those chemicals didn’t make much difference “and in some cases made things worse,” said chemist and independent consultant Abigail Cantor, P.E. This is because the metals in the pipes continued to make an impact. Cantor’s recommendation to the Madison Water Utility was that all lead service lines needed to be replaced.
So first there were years of discussion about how Madison could skip the step of putting a chemical in the water. Then they ran into the fact that water lines were owned by the city but only to the property line, where a valve marked the beginning of the owner’s property and responsibility. Madison passed a pay back law, up to half the homeowner’s cost, but people were disgruntled and some doubted there were problems with lead in the first place.
Barrilleaux said, “In the spring of 2000, after months of wrangling over how it would work, the Common Council narrowly green lit Madison Water Utility’s Lead Service Replacement Program, the first of its kind in the country.” Madison isn’t worried about its lead levels in water anymore having practically eliminated it.
How did they pay for it? Barrilleaux said, “Wisconsin’s Public Service Commission did not allow us to use rate-payer dollars to fund customer reimbursements, but we were able to use revenue generated by renting space on top of our water towers to cellphone companies for their antennas.”
While the city crews worked on the city-owned parts, private plumbers worked on the private side. They could often work together with the city leaving the trench open to lower the cost for homeowners, whose plumbers followed right behind. Barrilleaux said, “During the program, our average reimbursement for half the cost of the private-side lateral was $670. So the entire cost to replace the private-side portion was $1,340 on average. The average cost to replace our side during the program was $1,997.”
Barrilleaux would tell other cities to “communicate with customers as much as possible. Even after replacing pipes, encourage flushing pipes and go back to do testing. Homeowners push back. Flushing is really important. It takes a lot of education and outreach. In Wisconsin you get lukewarm water first — run until it gets cold, a couple minutes. Get stagnant water out of plumbing and use the fresh water coming out of the main. This would be more of a problem in states where the water is always lukewarm.”
Before the program the 90th percentile of lead in water was 16 μg/L, though some homes had higher than 100. Barrilleaux said, “We continue to monitor for lead at the customer’s tap. Each time (twice in 2011 and once in 2014) the 90th percentile level has been around 3 μg/L. Lead testing will occur again in 2017 and then every three years after that.”
Barrilleaux said the biggest challenge so far was “figuring out reimbursement. We couldn’t use money from repairs for improvement of local property. We couldn’t put a surcharge on everyone’s bill. We had to organize with private companies. Private plumbers would follow city plumbers to work with homeowners. This was logistically difficult and took a lot of planning initially. When we did this, we were on our own. Cities now have the state (DNR) funding to help.”