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Local leaders and water advocates say up to $60 billion is needed to clean up the dangerous national drinking water pipe problem but the infrastructure package provides only about $15 billion.
President Biden could come up well short of his goal of replacing all lead drinking water pipes in the country, under the new infrastructure bill being debated by the U.S. Senate, experts say.
Senators from both parties negotiated the mammoth bill in secret for more than a month, with the public getting its first look at just days ago. If it were to pass, it would include massive increases in federal support for drinking water and sewer systems, a welcome development for local government leaders and water advocates.
But as leaders have combed through the 2,702-page bill, they have flagged many issues they hope lawmakers will address as the proposal starts what could be a treacherous journey through Congress. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer pledged Wednesday to delay the chamber’s month-long August break, due to start Monday, until the bill passes.
The plan’s approach to replacing the millions of lead service lines in the country is certainly on the list.
The White House, in a summary posted before the text of the bill was released, said the proposal “represents the largest investment in clean drinking water in American history.” It noted that the legislation contains money to help water agencies deal with the pollution of a large group of “forever chemicals” known as PFAS, as well as lead-in-water poisoning.
The bill includes $11.7 billion over five years to be directed to state revolving funds for both drinking water and sewer systems. That’s nearly double the current spending for drinking water, as well as a substantial increase for clean water systems.
The White House summary also said the Senate bill “will replace all of the nation’s lead pipes and service lines.” That seems unlikely, at least in the bill’s current form. (The White House press office did not respond to requests for comment by press time.)
There are at least two main issues that advocates pointed to that would limit the effectiveness of the lead pipe replacement program in the bill.
The first is that the amount of money set aside for the task—$15 billion—will likely not be enough to accomplish the goal, which industry experts say could easily be more than double that amount. (The Biden administration originally called for $45 billion for lead service line replacements.)
“That’s not the way to get all lead pipes out,” says Carolyn Berndt, a lobbyist on sustainability issues for the National League of Cities. “$15 billion is not enough.”
In fact, the American Water Works Association earlier this year estimated that the cost could be as high as $60 billion.
The water industry group noted that the Environmental Protection Agency estimated that there are 6 million to 10 million lead service lines in the country. But new rules that the EPA is considering could require utilities not just to replace lead pipes, but also pipes made of galvanized iron or steel preceded by lead pipe, to reduce the risk of lead poisoning.
“[Ten] million service lines is likely an underestimate,” the AWWA wrote in a letter to the top senators on the Environment and Public Works committee this March.
“AWWA estimates that, on average, full service line replacement costs more than $6,000 per line, and in some settings, such as urban centers, costs can routinely exceed $10,000 per line. Consequently, a conservative cost forecast for fully replacing all of these service lines is $60 billion,” the group explained.
Loans Not Grants
The second issue with the new infrastructure bill’s approach to lead pipe replacement, is that half of the money set aside for that purpose is dedicated to loans, rather than grants.
“Frankly, there are just many communities and many residents, where another loan is just not going to be affordable,” says Berndt from the National League of Cities. “To really incentivize the lead pipe replacement, it really has to be in the form of grants to communities, especially because there’s no way to the local government to recoup that money repay the loan.”
Dan Hartnett, a lobbyist for the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies, which represents large drinking water utilities, says structuring the relief as loans could also make it harder for utilities to get homeowners to agree to replace their lead service lines.
Service lines connect homes to water mains under the street, which means they are both on public and private property.
Water utilities cannot replace pipes on private land without the owners’ consent. Plus, in many states, Hartnett notes, the utilities cannot use ratepayer money to make improvements to private property. Those restrictions can make it difficult to even offer low-interest loans to homeowners to cover the cost of replacing their service lines.
“Having the money be fully in grants would be much more helpful in helping homeowners cooperate with the local utility replacements, because if the project is funded through federal grants, there’s no possible complications” with how those loans are paid back, Hartnett says.
The water advocates said they don’t anticipate that the federal government would cover the entire cost of lead pipe replacements, and that the $15 billion in the infrastructure bill would go a long way to addressing the problem.
“This is a process that will last several years,” says Tommy Holmes, the legislative director for the American Water Works Association. “You’ve got to put people in the field to dig and pull new lines through. If they were to give us $60 billion or $70 billion tomorrow, it would still be a while before all the lines are in place.”
And Hartnett, the lobbyist for the metropolitan water utilities, says money isn’t the only factor that will determine how quickly lead pipes can be replaced. That will also depend on how willing homeowners are to let utilities dig up their yard, enter their home and sometimes even charge them for the upgrade.
“We want to make sure that people are aware that no amount of federal dollars alone are going to ensure the full replacement of every lead service line across the country,” Hartnett says.
The potential dangers of lead pipes for drinking water became a national issue following the 2014 Flint water crisis, where a switch in the source of water and mistakes at the city’s water treatment center led to thousands of residents being exposed to high levels of lead.
Lead is a neurotoxin that is especially harmful to children under age 2. Scientists say there is no safe level of exposure to the chemical. Congress outlawed the use of lead pipes for drinking water in 1986.
Water experts are also worried about other aspects of the bill, as currently drafted. Those include:
- More stringent “Buy American” provisions that would apply not just to American iron and steel used for pipes, but also to manufactured components. That could make it more burdensome to buy equipment for control boards for water treatment plants, which are often only available from foreign manufacturers. “If now we’re going to have to go through the Buy American process to certify that there’s not a similar domestically made computer component that’s available, that’s going to introduce some new red tape and slow things down,” says Hartnett.
- A lack of funding for drinking water resilience, stormwater management and overflow, water workforce development and other programs that were included in a water bill the Senate passed in late April. It’s possible that funding could come later, says Berndt. “But if we’re talking about significant investment in our nation's water infrastructure,” she says, “this would have been the place to do it.”
- The lack of grants for water and wastewater projects distributed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Mike Keegan, a regulatory analyst for the National Rural Water Association, says the USDA programs, which are limited to communities of fewer than 10,000 people, “helps communities that can’t find credit elsewhere” and have a hard time competing against bigger municipalities for other types of loans and grants.
The legislation is a long way from reaching the president’s desk. It must still pass through several Senate committees before reaching the chamber floor. Democrats who control the House have balked at several components of the larger infrastructure bill, further complicating its fate.
But Keegan says the Senate bill is likely to remain more or less intact.
“When you’re faced with an overwhelming Senate vote – it could get over 80 votes in the Senate – then, all of a sudden, you’re looking at it differently,” he says of the House leadership. “If the Senate [passes it], then all the previous partisan posturing has to change, because it’d be a pretty massive accomplishment by the Senate.”
Daniel C. Vock is a public policy writer.