Jeramey Jannene
Eyes on Milwaukee

$750 Million to Replace Lead Pipes

Solutions to city's lead laterals expensive and not simple, council members find.

By - Jan 24th, 2018 06:19 pm
Lead from corroded pipes in Flint, Michigan, is partially to blame for a public health crisis in the impoverished community. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has failed to update lead testing guidance in the wake of the Flint crisis. Photo courtesy of Siddhartha Roy of

Lead from corroded pipes in Flint, Michigan, is partially to blame for a public health crisis in the impoverished community. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has failed to update lead testing guidance in the wake of the Flint crisis. Photo courtesy of Siddhartha Roy of

The Milwaukee Common Council continues to dig deeper into lead poisoning. What started last week with a four-plus hour debate on lead paint and the failings of the Health Department has now shifted focus to examining lead pipes buried deep underground.

The council’s Public Works Committee held a two-hour long hearing on three separate resolutions Wednesday morning, but ultimately held all the of them in the face of increasingly conflicting opinions on what to do. The solutions are not simple, they learned and even should the city spend the unimaginable figure of $750 million — the estimated cost of replacing all lead laterals — there would be still problems with lead in the water.

At one point, things began to seem so dire that after learning that it might be effectively impossible to get all of the lead out of water, a stunned Alderman Robert Bauman said: “That’s a good headline, a bottle of water has lead in it.” Bauman was referring to fact that commercially bottled water is allowed by the Food & Drug Administration to have up to five parts per billion.

The hearing centered around a presentation by Milwaukee Water Works Superintendent Jennifer Gonda that examined the city-owned water utility’s progress in replacing as many of the estimated 70,000 lead laterals as their current budget allows.

Gonda told the committee that the city currently has identified 77,585 lead service lines, roughly 46 percent of all the 169,816 service lines in the city. The lateral pipes connect properties to water mains and are owned by the city until they reach the property line. The split ownership structure complicates their replacement, with the city facing substantial legal issues in using city funds to replace privately-owned pipes.

The city stopped using lead on their portion of the lateral in 1951, with private contractors banned from doing so in the early 1960’s. Multiple studies of properties from the interim decade — 1951 to early 1960s — have found that less than five percent of those laterals contain lead. The uncertainty around the exact number has been a source of confusion for the council, and underscores the many layers of the lead problem. The city’s water utility will soon be mailing instructions and a testing magnet to the approximately 33,000 properties built in that interim decade that need further testing.

Gonda reported that in 2017 the utility replaced 610 lead laterals. Of those, 432 were mandatory replacements because of leaks, 144 were at child care centers, 10 were owner-initiated, 24 were related to water main replacement or other utility work. This year 27 laterals have been replaced, out of an 800 lateral target. Through a variety of funding sources, the city invested $6.6 million on lateral replacement in 2017 and has an estimated 2018 investment of $8.8 million. Gonda is planning to build capacity and funding within the utility to expand the annual replacement level to 1,200 by 2020.

The replacement work is moving slowly, which has drawn the ire of a handful of council members, but is still a marked improvement from the city’s actions just a few years ago. The city has gone from patching broken laterals to mandating their entire replacement. A troubling step occurred for a period in the middle according to Ald. Jim Bohl, the council’s resident water expert.

Bohl told the council that the city’s 2016 practice of replacing only the public portion with copper and leaving the privately-owned lead half of the lateral causes a substantial increase in lead leaching because of a reaction between the metals. The city replaced 330 laterals in 2016, with only 14 property owners electing to take the extra expense of replacing the entire pipe. One of those 14 was Bauman, who noted that the utility strongly urged him to undergo the cost of full replacement at his home in January 2016.

The city enacted a full replacement mandate, championed by Bohl, and an accompanying subsidy in December 2016 to encourage homeowners to replace their half of the lateral, with the city paying much of the cost and charging the owner $1,600, which can be paid over a ten-year period.

Department of Public Works Commissioner Ghassan Korban defended the 2016 practice of simply replacing the city’s half of the lateral, saying it was better than simply patching the pipe. Ald. Nik Kovac summarized the issue in stating: “what we did in 2016 was better than what we did in 2015, but not as good as what we’re doing now.”

Is Milwaukee Worse Than Flint?

Multiple city officials and committee members took the chance to note that lead levels seen in Milwaukee are many orders pf magnitude less than those seen in Flint, Michigan. The highest water test on record in Milwaukee found 130 parts-per-billion, a devastatingly-high level, but far below the over 5,000 ppb results in Flint water in recent years that came after the city switched their water source. A level over 5,000 is considered “toxic waste” by the EPA.

According to Korban, Milwaukee does not qualify for the over $100 million in aid Flint has received because of the difference in levels. The city’s testing has found it in compliance with federal guidelines of 15 ppb, although far from where many city officials would like to see it.

Milwaukee maintains its compliance by treating its water with orthophosphate according to Gonda. The phosphorus treatment is designed to keep lead from leaching out from the pipes as best as possible. The city began the treatment in 1996.

Lead at Child Care Centers

The relatively low number of child care centers that are opting to replace their lead laterals drew the ire of many council members. Alderman Michael Murphy expressed disbelief that out of the 385 facilities with lead service lines only 144 responded to a series of letters warning them of the dangers of lead poisoning, and offering all costs to be borne by the city. “There are a number of daycare centers,” Bohl complained, “turning a blind eye to this issue. At some point, someone ought to be calling them out publicly and alerting parents.”

Ald. Milele A. Coggs and Murphy pushed the City Attorney’s office to offer an opinion as soon as possible on legal methods for compelling the centers to accept the free lateral replacement. The facilities, which are exclusively licensed by the state, are required to abate issues with lead paint.

Murphy and others noted that there are numerous solutions to temporary water storage to avoid the one-day downtime associated with lateral replacement and that loss of business is not a reason for not acting. According to Gonda, 100 child care centers are already scheduled to undergo replacement work this year.

Hope on the Horizon

A recently passed state bill might allow the city to rapidly ramp up their replacement program. City lobbyist Brenda Wood told the committee that recently passed legislation would allow the water utility to increase the rates of residential customers to pay for 50 percent of the cost of replacing their laterals.

“Theoretically if this becomes effective, we have the ability to go out and borrow $50 million, amortize that over our rate base and invest $50 million instead of $6 or $8 million?” Bauman asked. Yes, according to Wood, although the legislation was originally two pages and has since been expanded with amendments because of heavy lobbying from the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce association and others.

“We’ll want to know who on the record rejected paying for abating lead poisoning for the children of Milwaukee,” said Bauman before singling out MillerCoors. Multiple sources within City Hall told Urban Milwaukee the company opposed the measure in April 2017. The company declined to comment at the time.

A Waste of Money?

“It is vitally important we better understand this issue than we’re getting at right now,” said Bohl.

While replacing all of the lead laterals seems on its face to be a simple, but expensive solution, things just aren’t that straightforward. Bohl raised the alarm that based on multiple studies, even homes without lead laterals routinely test positive for elevated lead levels in water.

Where does the lead come from? The primary culprit is lead pipes within the home, but beyond that lead solder, fixtures and faucets contribute. Recalling a study he had read about Madison, which is one of the few American cities to replace all of their lead laterals, Bohl noted the city has seen elevated lead levels in water in 38 percent of tested homes.

Bohl noted locally that Milwaukee Public Schools is already proving this unfortunate reality. With not a single lead lateral in any of the 150-plus MPS facilities, over 1,500 faucets showed elevated lead levels.

So is spending at least $750 million on lead lateral replacement a smart thing to do? Not according to Bohl. The city could more effectively abate the issue by getting lead water filters into homes.

The city now provides filters at no charge when nearby utility work might disrupt lead pipes.In addition, households with children under six or pregnant mothers are eligible for a free filter. Gonda said the utility was updating all of its literature to recommend the filters for all homes with children under six or pregnant mothers, even if they didn’t have a lead service line.

Korban said that another potential measure is pipe-lining technology. He noted a number of companies are testing prototypes that could prevent lead from getting into the water without the need to replace all of the piping infrastructure. Such systems are being put in place in Europe according to Korban.

Ald. Robert Donovan asked why the city can’t start installing such a system here, with Korban stating that the systems are not approved for use in the United States.

“Funny you should mention that, because Chicago has 480,000 lead service lines and has no intention of digging them up, they intend to do the lining process,” said Bauman.

Bauman said it was Bohl’s dissenting view on lateral replacement, as well input from others that led him to suggesting the committee hold off on approving any new lead replacement mandates.

The committee unanimously moved to hold the measures and is likely to revisit them at its February 14th meeting.

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14 thoughts on “Eyes on Milwaukee: $750 Million to Replace Lead Pipes”

  1. Barbara says:

    I believe that terrifying-looking coating on the insides of those pipes is actually a substance that keeps the water from coming in contact with the lead pipe itself. I do know that the Water Department uses an additive that coats the pipes for that reason. And I’m getting a little tired of the over sensationalizing of the water lead issue. This is not Flint, Michigan and it’s not going to be. If you’re worried about lead in your drinking water, let your cold water run for a couple of minutes in the morning to flush out the water that sat in the pipes overnight. Or put a filter on your faucet. Or use a cannon to shoot a squirrel: Spend $5,000 and have your lateral replaced.

    If you really want to prevent lead poisoning, see to the old lead paint in your window frames where the windows scrape against it when they’re opened and closed. That and old peeling paint cause most lead poisoning.

  2. mike says:

    Why did we open this can of worms? Our water lead levels are fine. We should be focusing on lead paint in every house built before WW2, where kids are actually likely to get lead poisoning.

  3. ERIC J. says:

    Waukesha IS BUYING MILWAUKEE water due to elevated levels of radium. ” tired of the over sensationalizing of the water lead issue” ?????
    -The city cannot be delivering water that will eventually poison its recipients in southeastern Wisconsin.
    -There are laws and ordinances regarding lead based paint when doing re-painting or remodeling in residential settings .
    -Maybe Barbara can get the current legislature to ban the city from remediating the current water issue.

  4. Sam says:

    I think the City council is being smart and considerate about how to address the issue. Lead paint exposure is being addressed in Milwaukee, with success.

  5. Barbara says:

    Eric J. — The water coming out of Milwaukee’s treatment plants is clean and safe. The only way lead gets into it is when it sits in lead laterals (the connectors from the water main in the street to the house) overnight. And those have a coating inside them now that minimizes the lead pickup. And the problem is only for very old homes (probably not many in Waukesha). And the solution is very simple, as I’ve outlined above.

    Be very careful of falling for manufactured uproar that serves politicians well and sells newspapers. We have real problems that need fixing more.

  6. Barbara says:

    Sam — I agree. Glad to see the Council is looking at factual information. And yes – Milwaukee has been in the forefront of lead paint abatement in the nation.

  7. Jeramey Jannene says:

    @Barbara – Much of what you discuss in your original comment (Flint, coating, lead leaching) is covered in the article. But a key piece of information that came out of the hearing is that even homes without lead laterals can have lead in the water (from fixtures and piping internal to the house). Ald. Bohl cited a figure of 38% of tested homes in Madison.

    You are certainly correct that lead paint is a bigger concern. This isn’t lost on the council, but also was not what was the subject of this particular hearing.

  8. David Boucher says:

    Thank you for the thoughtful and relatively comprehensive story on one of the greatest indicators of Milwaukees capacity to protect its most vulnerable.. However, a focus on water continues to obfuscate the scope and range of lead sources the public and particularly young children are exposed to.

    Toward the end you ask, “Where does lead come from”. Lets remember leaded gas and paint for decades were considered leading causes, with solder and pipes somewhere down the list. While Milwaukee has conducted rigorous lead abatement for more than 2 decades, unmaintained lead paint in homes is the likely primary source for young children.

    While I have seen little recent data, until we develop a comprehensive approach to address housing conditions and families in poverty in the central city, the water laterals will likely be the latest and most expensive diversion to the issue. In a worst-case scenario, water laterals may ultimately do little to reduce childhood lead poisoning. I hope we dont find that to be the case.

  9. Ben says:


    The trolley will save us

  10. PMD says:

    Oh haha another streetcar joke, but oh snap he calls it a trolley. What a hilarious burn. I’ve never heard that one before. Where do people come up with these sophisticated jokes?

  11. Barbara says:

    Jeramey, yes, I know that lead in solder, etc. is also a problem. That’s why I said it’s important to clear the water that’s been standing in the pipes, not just standing in the lateral.

  12. Home Owner says:

    “The city could more effectively abate the issue by getting lead water filters into homes.” This is NOT practical!! Standard carbon filters do not filter out lead. Do any of you use lead filters? They need to be replaced often, and are quite pricey and beyond that they drop your water pressure considerably. Water barely trickles out of my faucet when I have the lead filter in. My water pressure isn’t noticeably affected when I’m just using a standard active carbon filter, but those do not block lead. I will pay for my lateral to be replaced, I was really hoping for an efficient plan where maybe they would schedule an area at a time for replace and save money by not just randomly bouncing equipment all over town. There should be a savings by doing the work in bulk sort of similar to an assembly line. And pass that savings on to the home owners in need replacement.

  13. Troll says:

    No lead problem. Tell that to the milwaukee families who are drinking lead tainted water. Alderman Bauman seemed to be concerned he i vested a significant amount of income to protect his family.

  14. Barbara says:

    Troll, no one says there’s no problem. But the problem isn’t something anyone needs to get hysterical about. It isn’t that hard to remedy cost effectively. Run the water for a few minutes to clear the lines of what’s been sitting in them overnight. The water in the main has no lead at all. It has to stand for a few hours at least in the lateral or in the house lines (if there’s any lead in those) to pick up any lead.

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