Lead Service Lines Highly Impact Low-Income, Minority Households

By: Bill Eller

The lead water service lines in this country need to be replaced, but replacement programs need to keep low-income homeowners in mind in the planning stages.

There are nine million homes in America that get their water through lead water service lines, and lead water service lines are the largest source of lead in water. Lead is not present in source water, and it cannot be removed at the water treatment plant. Water can be treated to reduce corrosion as it moves through in-home plumbing, but the only way to prevent lead in water is to remove lead plumbing altogether.

Low-income and minority homeowners represent a disproportionate number of households still serviced by lead service lines. The Metropolitan Planning Council reported that 65 percent of Illinois’ Black and Latino residents and 42 percent of Asian-American and Indigenous residents lived in communities with 94 percent of known lead service lines in the state.

Many communities that serve these homeowners have struggled to keep up with maintenance, because adequate funding was not invested from either a federal or state level. Additionally, many grants and loans require matching funds that these communities don’t have.

Raising water rates to find funding for these loans or grants or simply address nagging maintenance issue isn’t always feasible in low-income communities. In fact, more than one in ten households had unaffordable water bills in 2017 and that was estimated to increase to more than a third by 2022. A 2020 study found that water rates increased by an average of 80 percent over ten years in 12 cities and that between 46 and 80 percent of low-income households in those cities will have unaffordable water bills by 2030.

In some communities, where state mandates have ordered lead water service lines replaced, utilities have expressed concern over increasing water rates in order to pay for the replacements. Not only are utilities worried about how these mandates will be funded, but they are concerned about how they will find enough qualified contractors to do the work and how these replacement programs will be administered.

A lead service line replacement program needs to be equitable and recognize that minority and low-income households are more likely to be exposed to additional sources of lead, such as lead paint, on top of exposure through lead water lines.

Since these replacement programs require participation from homeowners to replace the portion of the lead water line on private property, administrators need to consider that many low-income households need to be supported in replacing their portion of the line. Many low-income residents also may live in rental properties, and landlords may be less likely to participate in replacement programs.

Ensuring that utilities and homeowners work together to completely replace lead lines is important, because a partial replacement can cause a spike in lead in water as the construction disturbs the service line and stirs up lead. Utilities must balance this fact with the knowledge that replacement can put a financial burden on residents.

The average cost to replace a lead water service line is about $5,000, and many communities do not have a good idea of where lead lines are located in their communities, which are significant hurdles to full lead water line replacements.

A partnership with the NLC Service Line Warranty Program can give communities access to our nationwide network of pre-vetted, qualified, local contractors, educate homeowners about their service line responsibilities at no cost to the community and allow homeowners to protect themselves with an optional warranty. To learn more about how we can help you navigate lead line awareness and service line repairs and replacement, contact us.