A version of this story was first published by Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, a nonprofit news organization that covers Milwaukee’s diverse neighborhoods.
Although Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson has released a plan that would speed up the replacement of lead service lines in the city, one major question remains: Will the money be there?
Moreover, critics say his plan to replace the lines in even 20 years is too long, although it improves on an earlier 60-year timeline.
Why the concern? Lead exposure can cause brain damage and other physical problems, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. Children under 6 who are exposed to lead have a higher chance of developing lifelong issues, including developmental delays, slowed growth, difficulty in school and lowered IQ.
Milwaukee aims to replace 66,000 lead service lines
The mayor’s plan differs from a plan laid out by Milwaukee Water Works just shortly before his announcement.
Back then, Brian Rothgery, the communication manager of the Milwaukee Water Works, laid out his department’s plans to Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service (NNS). The goal is to use new federal infrastructure funding to help accelerate the lead service line replacements.
Milwaukee still has more than 66,000 service lines that need to be replaced, with a current replacement rate of about 900 lines per year. Almost all lines getting replaced are those that are failing or leaking. About 5,700 lead service lines have been replaced already, according to Milwaukee Water Works.
Milwaukee Water Works Superintendent Patrick Pauly had decided to increase replacements from 500 to 1,000 in year one, Rothgery said in an email before the mayor’s announcement.
With other factors, this took the per-year replacement rate to 2,200 lead service lines, which would require 30 years to complete.
But that’s not 3,300 lines a year, nor would that occur in the 20 years the mayor has suggested.
How pipeline replacement plans differ
After the mayor’s announcement, Pauly tackled the difference.
“Water Works plans to increase the number of lead service line replacements every year until we arrive at an annual pace that puts us on track to replace all of them by 2044,” he said.
That roughly fits the mayor’s 20-year timeline. Milwaukee Water Works’ 30-year plan took into account funding. So, what changed?
“Establishing a plan to replace LSLs (lead service lines) creates a pathway to accelerate the pace much more quickly in successive years,” Rothgery said. He also sees the possibility that Milwaukee gets an increase in state funding.
Who will pay to replace lead service lines?
And therein lies the rub. Will the money be there? Implicit in the mayor’s plan is a big “if.”
To make the 20-year timeline happen, Milwaukee Water Works “will need to be able to access a steady and sufficient stream of state and federal funds, eliminate the cost-share for residents, and greatly improve our internal vacancy rate of 25%,” Pauly wrote to NNS.
The internal vacancy rate includes any administrative and utility staffing positions that need to be filled.
Then there’s a potential boon for property owners who are now tasked with a share of the cost for replacing lead laterals.
Currently, they are expected to pay one-third of the replacement cost, which is $1,592.
But consider: Many of these pipes are in some of the city’s most underserved and impoverished neighborhoods. The current cost, even if it is spread over 10 years, acts as a disincentive.
Milwaukee is still waiting to hear how much the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and Department of Administration will grant to the city out of the $139 million dollars put aside for upgrades in Wisconsin’s drinking water infrastructure.
Estimated cost to replace pipelines: $630 million
Ultimately, Milwaukee will need an estimated $630 million to replace all the lead service lines, Rothgery said. The homeowner costs might go away, Rothgery explained, if the federal government forgives the principal in loans provided for the work. The city agency hopes that Milwaukee’s Equity Prioritization Plan, which prioritizes which areas get the replacement work first, will help trigger this.
The equity plan takes into account three factors: the concentration of lead service lines; elevated blood lead levels in children; and the neighborhood’s socioeconomic index score. The socioeconomic index evaluates 17 criteria, encompassing income/employment, housing, education and household factors.
The ZIP codes selected for high priority based on these factors include 53205 and 53206 on the North Side as well as areas on the South Side.
If the federal money comes as principal-forgiveness loans, they will not have to be paid back. If that happens, the homeowner cost share will be lowered, if not entirely eliminated.
But, again, will this happen?
Milwaukee seeks loan forgiveness
The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law grants funds to public transportation efforts and other infrastructure and construction projects. Thanks to the law, funds will be distributed across the state via the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund.
Rebecca Scott, the environmental loans manager of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, told NNS that although Milwaukee may well qualify for 100% principal forgiveness, there is no guarantee it will receive that total.
This is because federal standards say only 49% of these loans can have their principal forgiven, and the Department of Natural Resources has to balance this percentage with other Wisconsin municipalities that applied for these loans.
As with Milwaukee’s equity plan, the Department of Natural Resources places more weight on communities with higher population density, higher poverty percentages, higher amounts of lead in water and larger concentrations of children.
Milwaukee may score score higher than other Wisconsin cities in such an analysis. It is the state’s largest city and is near the top for the proportion of residents who live below the poverty line.
Scott said: “Milwaukee will be able to receive all the funding they requested; the only question is how much will be principal forgiveness and how much will be low-interest loan.”
Scott said the city has asked for $6.3 million for water main replacements. Water mains are the larger pipes that bring water to the smaller service lines. There are no lead water mains in Milwaukee.
Milwaukee is expected to find out about its loan awards by late August.
Critics express frustrations
Critics note that cities like Detroit never expected homeowners to be burdened with lead service line replacement costs for anything but pipes located within the property. Denver has proposed increasing water rates by 3% to 5% to mitigate the cost.
Exasperation over any decades-long timeline was apparent at the first town hall on the lead issue in May, co-sponsored by Milwaukee Water Works and the Coalition on Lead Emergency.
This occurred before the mayor’s announcement.
“I’m frustrated. I knew about the lead issue 30 years ago. The level of urgency is not there. And I get concerned when we dismiss examples of other cities much like (us) … who are doing things at a much more rapid pace,” said a woman at the meeting who identified herself as a lifelong resident of Milwaukee.
Also among the critics of how long it is taking the city to act is Robert Miranda, who started the Freshwater for Life Action Coalition, which partners closely with Get The Lead Out, another organization advocating for lead cleanup.
“To remove these pipes in even another 20 years continues to condemn our children and another generation to drinking toxic and tainted lead water,” Miranda said after the mayor’s announcement. “Other cities around the country seem to be moving faster and with much more urgency in removing these pipes.”
After the lead crisis in Flint, Michigan, children who were tested in Milwaukee had two or more times the lead levels in their blood than the national average.
Miranda pointed to the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department’s lead service line replacement plans. Detroit plans to replace 5,000 lead water pipes this year, incrementally increasing the rate to finish replacing all 80,000 lead service lines by 2038.
Others also expressed frustration at the progress of the lead-line replacement at the last Get the Lead Out assembly on July 8.
“We put you in power, you need to figure it out,” said Stephani Lohman of Get the Lead Out after giving a presentation on the health risks of lead.
She and the coalition expressed the need to continue to apply pressure to city officials to accomplish their goals as well as set new ones to accomplish a Biden-Harris administration goal to remove all lead service lines in the U.S. in the next decade.
Make your voice heard
Milwaukee residents will have other opportunities to hear updates and share their perspectives.
Pauly is asking the community to attend future Milwaukee Water Works town hall meetings, which will occur in neighborhoods most affected.
To find out more about Milwaukee’s lead service line replacement, dangers of lead, and reducing your risk, visit this page.
To find out if a service line contains lead or has been replaced, visit this page or call Milwaukee Water Works customer service at 414-286-2830.