Jeramey Jannene

City Seeks Firm To Manage Its Accelerating Lead Pipe Replacements

New funding would allow program to double in size by 2025. Will council change plan?

By - Aug 9th, 2023 05:04 pm
A portion of a lead service line removed from a house on S. 12th St. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

A portion of a lead service line removed from a house on S. 12th St. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

The Milwaukee Water Works is seeking an outside firm to manage its growing lead service line replacement program.

Backed with a surge in funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the city-owned utility expects for the first time to have the capacity to fund more service line replacements than current city policies require. By 2025, it hopes to double the number of lines it is replacing annually.

As a result, city officials must now choose which additional laterals should be prioritized for replacement while navigating a complicated web of legal restrictions and acknowledging the fact that the city is still likely decades away from replacing the estimated 66,600 lead service lines still remaining.

An equity-focused draft plan from the city-owned utility would guide which service lines should be replaced next. But the contracted firm would be responsible for coordinating all of the replacements, which are made by contracted plumbers on a mix of public and private property.

The firm, to be selected by a request for proposals process, would be responsible for engaging with the impacted neighborhoods, coordinating the scheduling between the utility, plumbers, property owners and other city departments, managing any necessary payments, scheduling post-replacement water testing, distributing and collecting test kits and managing all of the resulting customer data.

A mandatory, pre-proposal conference is scheduled for Aug. 23 at the Zeidler Municipal Building, 841 N. Broadway.

The utility’s draft plan evaluates areas down to U.S. Census Bureau-defined census block groups (which have a population of between 600 to 3,000). Because it is substantially cheaper to replace a cluster of service lines than those scattered across the city, MWW is pursuing a strategy of bulk replacement.

Its proposal attempts to weigh various factors, including socioeconomic information and lead poisoning data, to determine which laterals should be replaced first. It identifies 10 areas of initial focus, six largely in a row along W. Locust Street in the northcentral area of the city, and four areas on the city’s near South Side, three along W. Greenfield Avenue and one near W. Lincoln Avenue and S. 6th Street.

MWW developed its Equity Prioritization Plan by weighting three factors, a UW-Madison-developed Area Deprivation Index of socioeconomic factors (70%), incidences of children testing positive for blood lead levels of at least 5 micrograms per deciliter (25%) and lead service line density (5%).

But it also includes a political consideration. All census block groups are weighted using the model, but then the annual replacements would be scheduled to occur with 65% on the North Side and 35% on the South Side.

A document from MWW says that split is being made to ensure work is done in both Black and Latino neighborhoods, with the predominately Black North Side containing 62% of lead laterals, 65% of the highest-ranking census blocks and 63% of the census blocks with children testing positive for elevated blood lead levels.

A copy of the RFP is available on Urban Milwaukee. Additional bidding information is available on the Department of Public Works website.

Council Could Change Plan

Alderwoman Marina Dimitrijevic is leading a coalition of council members that would like the city’s legislative body to have a final vote on the plan for which service lines get replaced.

She said she was spurred to act following a southside meeting on the proposal.

“There were many questions that arose from that meeting,” said Dimitrijevic at the council’s July 31 meeting.

“Parts of it did not go well,” said Council President José G. Pérez.

“It did not go well,” said Ald. JoCasta Zamarripa.

But Dimitirjevic’s proposal to immediately halt any implementation of the plan until the council returned from its August recess was effectively blocked by a coalition of northside council members.

“It’s kind of difficult for me to cast a vote here today without hearing from the Water Works,” said Ald. Milele A. Coggs of the proposal for immediate adoption.

Dimitrijevic threw in the towel, allowing the proposal to be sent back to a committee for further review.

“We know that this is a challenge that has been an issue for our city. This is a perfect way to come together,” she said. The alderwoman acknowledged that lead poisoning comes from several sources and cited lead paint as the primary driver. “We need to replace lead laterals and remediate lead paint.”

MWW is planning to replace 1,200 service lines in 2023, which in itself would be a record. But it expects, with the funding surge, it could replace 1,700 in 2024 and 2,200 in 2025.

MWW replaced 991 service lines in 2022, 558 because of a leak or failure, 77 at a childcare facility or school, 152 because of water main replacements, 174 because of other infrastructure projects, and 30 that were owner-initiated.

Any house built before 1978, which accounts for most of the houses in the city, is likely to include lead paint. The last lead service line in the city was believed to be installed in 1962. Interior plumbing, beyond the service line, is also likely to include lead.  City officials have repeatedly insisted that lead paint is the biggest danger, but that no amount of lead is safe. Individuals concerned about lead poisoning can learn more about lead-safe filters and testing on the MWW website. MWW also maintains a database of properties with known lead service lines.

Under current city policy, lead services connecting childcare centers to the water supply get replaced for free. Lead service lines that break are replaced with a maximum cost of $1,592 to the property owner. Similarly, if the road in front of a property is reconstructed or a water main is replaced, the lateral gets replaced under the $1,592 cost-sharing formula. That list would be exhausted with the 1,200 planned 2023 replacements.

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Categories: Health, Politics

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