Opinion

What It Will Take to Win Biden’s War on Lead Pipes

President Joe Biden’s American Jobs Plan has finally declared war on lead pipes and contaminated drinking water and puts real resources on the table. But funding alone – even to the tune of $111 billion – won’t be enough.

Here’s what Americans and Congress need to know about what it will take to truly replace every lead service line in the country:

First, we need to understand that we’ve underinvested in water infrastructure for decades. Funding for water systems peaked in the 1970s and has since fallen by 77 percent in real terms. Put differently, federal funding provided 63 percent of capital spending in the water sector in 1977. By 2017, it had fallen to just 9 percent of capital spending.

This is particularly troubling because there’s a direct line between poor funding and some of the most disturbing water crises in recent memory: Just months ago, as many as 13 million Texans found themselves without access to safe drinking water amid a winter storm. And in 2014, corroded lead pipes caused children’s blood lead levels to double in Flint, Mich. Both man-made and natural disasters expose vulnerabilities in our water infrastructure, and low-income communities and people of color often face the most serious and disproportionate health risks.

Absent funds or a policy emphasis on replacing service lines, our approach for the last 30 years has been to use treatment practices and chemical additives to prevent pipe corrosion that causes lead to enter our drinking water. As we saw when Michigan sought to cut costs by forcing Flint to switch from the Detroit River to the more corrosive source water of the Flint River, water treatment-based regulations can fail with catastrophic consequences.

Second, before we can replace lead service lines, we have to find them. And that won’t be easy.

Lead pipes were installed in American cities from the early 1800s until 1988, when the Environmental Protection Agency finally banned the practice. But most cities have little or unreliable data about where lead service lines were installed. What information does exist is scattered on note cards, engineering designs and in the minds of the most veteran employees, many of whom will retire in the next decade.

To find this secret network of toxic pipes, utilities will need to carefully comb over records, digitize their inventory data and engage key community partners, particularly in underserved neighborhoods. It can cost up to $1,000 just to dig up and verify the existence of a lead line, not counting the $2,500 average per-line replacement cost. For some communities, data science may provide an efficient way to find these lead pipes. And modern tools will be essential forgetting the job done with a sense of urgency.

Additionally, current estimates about the number of lead service lines in use likely undercount the severity of the problem.

We think there are somewhere between 6 and 10 million lead service lines in the United States, serving up 20 million Americans. But this data is based on a patchwork of survey research. And where service lines have been replaced, they’ve often been insufficiently documented, further compounding our information problem.

Even the limited data we have suggests that these lead service lines are disproportionately located in older homes or in urban and lower-income areas.

This fact highlights a final critical point. Legislation regarding lead service line replacement must also spell out clear environmental justice measures to ensure low-income areas and communities of color receive attention and investment first. This is a vital opportunity to correct the missteps of the past.

The president specifically calls for $45 billion in lead service line replacement funding to be channeled through State Revolving Funds (the banks that support drinking and wastewater projects) and the EPA’s WIIN Grant program. These are highly effective funding sources that can prioritize underserved communities, and these resources will be essential if Congress and the president are truly committed to replacing every lead service line in America.

As the president stated, clean and safe water is a basic human right and we need to ensure all Americans truly have access to this vision. We know what needs to happen. And now America’s water professionals may finally have the resources to do it.

Erica Walker is director of environmental policy and programs at 120Water and previously managed statewide drinking water lead sampling programs for public schools in Indiana.

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