Congress Eyes Lead Service Line Replacement, Water Infrastructure

by | Aug 12, 2021 | Education, EPA, Green Initiatives, Infrastructure, Large Cities, Lead in Water, Public-Private Partnerships, Service Line Responsibilities, Water Solutions

As a bipartisan infrastructure bill comes closer to realization, many municipal leaders may wonder what provisions related to water infrastructure and lead service line replacement means for their communities.

The Senate passed the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act on Aug. 10, and it will now head to the House, which passed its own $715 billion bill in July. The Senate bill faces an uphill battle as it goes to the House, where it may be paired with a $3.5 trillion human infrastructure budget package Representatives want passed through reconciliation.

The House bill proposed $168 billion for water infrastructure, but the Senate bill proposes $55 billion for water infrastructure. Both legislative chambers appropriated money for the lead service line replacement in their respective bills, demonstrating the importance Congress puts on the lead service line replacement initiative, first proposed in the Biden administration’s American Jobs Plan, although at a heftier price tag of $45 billion.

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.

The bipartisan bill includes $15 billion over five years for lead service line replacement, half of which would be grants or forgivable loans and the remainder are loans that would need to be repaid to the federal government. Federal funding for water infrastructure has plummeted from the 1970s heydays to less than 5 percent, so appropriating billions for water infrastructure is welcome news.

Some are casting doubt on whether $15 billion is enough for lead service line replacement—there are an estimated 9.2 million homes with lead service lines, according to the Environmental Defense Fund. It is impossible to determine exactly how many lead service lines are in service, because some areas had little or no record keeping 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 lead water service lines can be a headache for municipal officials, since replacements are costly and at least a portion will be on private property. Studies have shown that replacing the portion of the lead water service line on the utility’s side can even temporarily increase the amount of lead in water, and those homeowners most at-risk for lead poisoning are also less likely to be able to afford the cost of replacing the portion of the line on their side of the meter.

Municipalities have not sat idly by, waiting for the federal government to address lead service line replacement. Some utilities have made low- or no-interest loans for part or all of the cost of line replacement; covered the cost of the water service line replacement when the utility was replacing the public part of the service line; or provided financial assistance based on household income. To finance this, utilities have raised rates, rented out space on water towers, budgeted the cost as part of corrosion control efforts or sought federal aid.

The Brookings Institute estimates that the real cost of replacing every lead water service line is between $28 billion to $47 billion.

So, what does this mean for municipalities and water utilities? There is some money coming, but the details as to who will get how much and how it will be used are not yet clear. There will have to be coordination between the agency tasked with the initiative, likely the EPA, and state and local government entities.

And municipalities will need to work with homeowners to replace their lead lines, putting into place regulations and guidelines for a program that is still nebulous. Some many find themselves overwhelmed by the coming administrative, scheduling and managerial needs—and all before a single shovel of dirt is turned.

HomeServe, who administers the National League of Cities Service Line Warranty Program, already works with nearly 700 cities making service line repairs for their residents, completing more than 1,000 repairs across the country each day. The company has the service delivery platform, dispatch technology and contractor network to help remove this burden from a city.

Utilities can help their residents with water service line replacements at no cost to themselves and, in fact, generate an alternative revenue stream to assist with costs associated with operations through a partnership with the National League of Cities Service Line Warranty Program.

The Program can help utilities educate residents about their responsibility to maintain their service lines and offers an optional warranty to shield residents from the financial shock of an unanticipated service line repair. The Program offers customers a 24/7/365 home repair emergency hotline, and local, licensed and insured plumbers are dispatched to make the repair.

For more information on how the Program can help you address water service line replacements, contact us.

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