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'Massive undertaking': Milwaukee expecting federal funds to make dent in lead service line replacements

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Posted at 7:00 AM, Dec 12, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-13 06:44:45-05

MILWAUKEE — The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that was signed into federal law last month is sending more than $250 million to Wisconsin to remove lead service lines that are connected to homes.

Based on Milwaukee’s lead service line inventory, it’s not uncommon for nearly every home on a block to be connected to lead service lines. While Milwaukee Water Works says the infrastructure funds will help, it isn’t expected to get Milwaukee anywhere close to eradicating the issue.

Online records show lead service lines are a health hazard found in about 40 percent of Milwaukee homes.

“It’s too expensive to pay for us to replace the pipes,” said Maria Sanchez.

For the five years Sanchez lived in her south-side home, she never drank or cooked with the tap water. Now, her tenants won’t have to worry about safe drinking water after their lead service lines burst this fall, triggering the city to immediately replace them.

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“The city of Milwaukee should replace all the water lines and remove the lead to prevent little and young people don’t have that problem in their bodies,” she said.

The city says eradicating the 67,000 lead service lines that are connected to Milwaukee homes would come with a $750 million price tag. Given that each lead lateral costs about $11,000 to replace, the city has only removed a thousand or fewer each of the past five years.

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“This is a massive undertaking,” said Milwaukee Water Works Superintendent Karen Dettmer.

Dettmer says the city is ecstatic help is on the way from the federal government. Wisconsin is set to receive $255 million between 2022 and 2026, but Dettmer says it’s too early to say how much Milwaukee will receive from the state. The state’s application process opens in January.

“It’s not going to solve all of our funding issues,” she said. “We have a number of lead service lines and our number one priority is getting those lead service lines replaced as quickly as possible.”

Milwaukee has about 40 percent of the state’s lead service lines. Congresswoman Gwen Moore knows every city and town in Wisconsin will apply for their fair share.

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“Once we allocate the money, the politics really begin at that point,” she said.

Congresswoman Moore points to Wisconsin Department of Health Services data as to why Milwaukee deserves a large chunk of the funds. 9.2 percent of Milwaukee children tested in 2018 were found to have dangerous blood lead levels — the highest percentage of any municipality in the state.

“It’s embarrassing to think that we’re dealing with this when we’ve known since ancient times that lead was bad, but it really causes learning disabilities, longterm impacts and maybe even associated with violence and criminal behavior,” Congresswoman Moore said.

If Milwaukee were to get 40 percent of the state’s funds, or roughly $100 million, the city could replace about 9,125 lead service lines over the next 5 years.

But Milwaukee Water Works says some obstacles stand in the way of federal funds making a big impact in the city. First, the state’s program requires the city to cover the cost up front, meaning a potentially substantial water rate increase for homeowners.

Secondly, far more trained workers would be needed. Common Council President Cavalier Johnson sees that as an opportunity.

“I think it puts us in a position where we’ll be able to make a significant investment in removing lead service laterals and also to work with a workforce development agency here in Milwaukee to ramp up a jobs program around this too,” President Johnson said. “Whether it’s taking those laterals out of the ground or getting folks into a career pathway, we’ll be making a lot of progress in Milwaukee on that front.”

Additional federal dollars could be coming to Wisconsin to remove lead service lines if the Build Back Better bill is signed into law as it’s currently written.

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