Infrastructure Bill Provides Funds to Replace Lead Water Service Lines

By: Bill Eller

Local officials have been making the case for years: We need more federal investment in our nation’s water infrastructure – it has shrunk from 63 percent in the 1970s to 9 percent now, and the average age of such infrastructure reached 45 years in 2020.

In short, despite the economic benefits that maintaining a healthy infrastructure brings to our communities and nation, the federal share of the costs pie has shrunk even as the infrastructure itself aged and needs increased maintenance.

One of the most serious problems facing our nation’s water infrastructure is the remaining lead water lines – the great majority of which are part of homeowners’ private plumbing – that are poisoning our nation.

Lead poisoning can cause damage to the neurological, cardiovascular and immune systems, and it is particularly harmful to children, reducing language development and attention span and increasing aggression and impulsiveness. There are no safe levels of lead, and the most common lead sources in drinking water are lead pipes, solder and brass fittings in fixtures, and lead that can dissolve into water or enter as flakes or miniscule particles.

There are an estimated 9.2 million homes with lead service lines, according to the Environmental Defense Fund, and only half of one percent are replaced each year. It is impossible to determine exactly how many lead service lines are in service because some areas had little or no recordkeeping when the lines were installed, the records have been lost in the intervening years or lines have been partially or completely replaced as they needed maintenance.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates the average cost to replace a lead service line at $4,700, with a low of $1,200 and a high of $12,300, and the Brookings Institute notes that replacing every lead water service line in the country could cost between $28 billion and $47 billion.

In early November, Congress passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, and President Joe Biden signed the $550 billion bill soon afterwards, putting $15 billion on the table to remove lead water service lines – only half or a third of what is estimated to be needed.

Even with a much-needed influx of federal dollars, replacing lead service lines can be a headache for municipal officials, since replacements are costly and at least a portion will be on private property. Maintenance work in areas with a high number of lead service lines can inadvertently cause spikes in lead levels at the tap. Studies have shown work can cause spikes in lead in drinking water.

As the service lines age, doing road or water main work that jars these lead lines can cause spikes in lead in the homeowners’ tap water for up to 18 months. Cutting into the service lines can break off protective coatings on the inside of the pipe, so replacing any portions of a service line that are a municipality’s responsibility can cause spikes. Additionally, joining dissimilar metals can cause galvanic corrosion, which causes spikes, so replacing the municipality’s portion of the line with a safer metal can cause potentially unanticipated consequences.

Now that federal funds have been earmarked for lead water service line replacement, municipalities and utilities are faced with a new problem: logistics. Public works departments are built to maintain and repair water mains, not replace homeowner water service lines and certainly not on the scale that communities receiving these federal dollars are going to see.

This is where the National League of Cities (NLC) Service Line Warranty Program can help. The program, which has been vetted by the National League of Cities, works with more than 700 municipal and utility partners to help educate their residents and customers about their homes’ water service lines and provides an optional water service line warranty.

We are able to deliver on that warranty because we have a 500-seat, U.S.-based call center that is staffed 24/7/365 to answer the call when a homeowner has a problem. We also have a nationwide network of thoroughly vetted professional plumbers, all of whom are licensed, insured and local to the communities they serve.

We have the infrastructure to help you educate your residents and customers while providing them a way to replace their water service lines when they fail because of normal wear and tear – after all, their service lines are aging along with your infrastructure.

To learn how we can provide you and your residents with peace of mind, contact us.