Flint Crisis Spotlights Lead Service Line & Infrastructure Replacement Needs

While the crisis in Flint, Mich., can be traced to an unfortunate and confounding sequence of human errors, it has also prompted a national discussion about the extent of our nation’s water infrastructure needs. It has placed a particular focus on the challenges involved with replacing the millions of lead service lines that still carry drinking water from the public water system to homes in many U.S. cities.

Since water distribution infrastructure is buried underground, it is often overlooked and taken for granted. Today, because of the Flint crisis, it is at the forefront of a national dialogue on the value of water and the potential public health implications of ignoring needed infrastructure investments — investments that make it possible to deliver safe drinking water from source to tap. Lawmakers and regulators appear increasingly poised to act on these priorities, and the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies (AMWA) will continue to work with our nation’s leaders to strengthen our water systems.

One of the core values underlying the Safe Drinking Water Act is the requirement that as science improves and our knowledge expands, regulations are revisited and revised if necessary. AMWA supports the scientific underpinnings of the statute and the ongoing process to revise the existing Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Among recent relevant developments, EPA’s Science Advisory Board has cautioned against partial lead service line replacement because of its potential to negate the positive shielding effects of corrosion control and increase lead levels in the short term (EPA). Also, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently lowered the reference blood lead level in children at which proactive intervention is required (CDC).

In response, the National Drinking Water Advisory Council recently recommended revisions to strengthen the LCR through greater public outreach and collaboration, a revised sampling paradigm and renewed emphasis on corrosion control evaluations. These changes represent opportunities for meaningful improvements in managing lead in drinking water as work continues toward lead service line replacement in the long term. Due to the tremendous costs associated with replacing lead service lines, this type of balanced approach is essential to achieve optimal public health protection from lead for all drinking water consumers.

The speed at which communities can move toward complete lead service line removal is highly dependent on available funding, and from that perspective AMWA continues to work with members of Congress to develop proposals that would offer federal assistance to communities and homeowners who wish to replace their lead service lines. AMWA has urged that any federal funding assistance follow Science Advisory Board guidelines and only support full lead service line replacements; that is, replacement of both the public portion of a home’s service line (owned by the utility) as well as the private portion (owned by the individual homeowner).

AMWA believes home buyers should be made aware of the presence of lead pipes in houses that are on the market. Just as home sellers are required to disclose the presence of lead paint before going to closing, why not put the same rules in place to make sure potential buyers are told of any known lead plumbing or service lines? We plan to work with members of Congress to develop legislation along these lines.

Beyond new programs aimed squarely at lead, AMWA continues to support existing water infrastructure financing programs. By next year, EPA is expected to deliver the first funding through the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA), a new pilot program offering low-interest loans to large-scale water and wastewater infrastructure projects. President Obama’s fiscal year 2017 budget marks the first time the administration has requested funding to back WIFIA loans. We have no doubt the program will quickly be in high demand from communities across the country.

Now is also the time to maintain support for the Drinking Water and Clean Water State Revolving Funds (SRFs). The SRFs are well-established loan programs that help communities pay for water and wastewater infrastructure upgrades, with a focus on delivering the greatest public health benefits.

And at the local level, communities continue to stretch their own ratepayer dollars by issuing tax-exempt municipal bonds to support water system upgrades. The holders of these bonds pay no federal tax on their interest, so they charge lower interest rates — thus reducing costs to communities. But because some in Washington have considered rolling back these tax benefits, AMWA is working hard to make lawmakers understand that such a policy would only make water projects more expensive to local ratepayers.

Looking ahead, issues surrounding lead will likely dominate conversations related to drinking water in the foreseeable future. However, we must not lose sight of the bigger picture — a picture that AMWA keeps in sharp focus with its work on all aspects of drinking water supply and management. From concerns about excess nutrients and algal toxins to planning for increased resiliency and more effective utility management, continued vigilance across the spectrum is essential to keep problems like those experienced in Flint from being repeated.

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Scott Potter is president of the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies (AMWA), an organization of the nation’s largest publicly-owned drinking water utilities, and the director of Metro Water Services, which provides drinking water, wastewater and stormwater management services to residents of Nashville, Tenn., and surrounding counties.

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