How Do You Solve A Problem Like Lead Pipes? Lessons From Cities Getting It Done

NPR’s Monica Eng uncovers some key takeaways that Chicago — and other cities with lead in their water systems — might find helpful if and when they finally decide to get the lead out.

When Lori Lightfoot became the mayor of Chicago this year, it marked a lot of “firsts.”

Lightfoot is, of course, Chicago’s first African American woman, and openly gay mayor.

But she is also the city’s first chief executive to acknowledge that the hundreds of thousands of lead pipes that deliver water to Chicago homes — called lead service lines — are a problem.

“I think it’s critically important that we provide people with information and we work with them to get rid of the lead service lines,”she told me in January when she was still a candidate. I don’t think the city of Chicago has done nearly a good enough job of being transparent and being a partner with city residents on this incredibly important issue.”

It’s an incredibly important issue because the lead from these pipes can leach into drinking water. About 70% of Chicago homes tested in recent years have had lead in the tap water.

Authorities warn that no level of ingested lead is safe, as it can contribute to heart attacks, hypertension and kidney problems in adults. In kids, it has been proven to cause impulsivity, violent behavior and learning difficulties.

Curious Citizen Mike Stevens heard about Chicago’s lead pipe issue and wondered what it would take to address the problem. So he asked Curious City:

How many miles of lead pipe would Chicago would need to remove to reduce lead in our water?

I did some math and came up with an estimate: about 4,500miles. In other words, Chicago has enough lead pipes to stretch all the way to San Francisco, Calif., and back ⁠— with enough left over to reach Green Bay, Wisc. I got that by multiplying Chicago’s 392,614 lead service lines by their average length of 60 feet (based on documents WBEZ obtained through an open records request).

The reason that figure is so high is because about 80% of Chicago homes are still hooked up to the water main withlead lines. That means hundreds of thousands of Chicagoans could be drinking lead-tainted water every day. It also means Chicago has the largest inventory of lead service lines in the country.

So the larger question is, “What would it take to get rid of all that lead?” I wish I could say I have a ready answer from City Hall, but Lightfoot’s enthusiasm for speaking about lead lines as a candidate has not carried over into her tenure as mayor.

Lightfoot’s staff and water department officials have not granted interview requests about their plans to address the issue. They did, however, say in a statement that they’ll consider the findings of a feasibility study on the topic. That $750,000 study was commissioned in November 2018 and originally scheduled for completion in the spring of 2019. However, it has yet to be released.

But just because Chicago hasn’t yet started addressing the problem doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of solutions out there. Dozens of cities have started removing their lead lines, and some have already finished.

So, I went in search of solutions to Chicago’s lead problem. I asked national experts to point me to places that are actively, innovatively and effectively tackling the issue and learned that there are several right here in the Midwest. I was eager to check out the programs in Gary, Ind., and Cincinnati, Ohio, that the experts said were two of the best in the nation. But I also wanted to hear from a city that faces similar challenges to Chicago in the size and scope of the problem, as well as its fiscal challenges. So I added Detroit, Michigan, to my itinerary.

Below are some key takeaways that Chicago — and other cities with lead in their water systems — might find helpful if and when they finally decide to get the lead out.

Stop 1: Gary, Indiana

Number of lead service lines: approximately 55,000.

Type of water service: private water utility Indiana American Water, which supplies water to about 300,000 households in communities all over the state.

Estimated completion date: no later than 2042, but possibly as soon as 2028.

What homeowners pay: nothing up front (though everyone’s water bills go up).

Funding mechanisms:

– Federally-funded Drinking Water State Revolving Funds.

– Systemwide increases in water bills.

Takeaways for Chicago:

– Spread out the cost so that everyone pays, including people who don’t have lead lines.

– Lobby state lawmakers to set up any necessary legal framework.

– Use available state and federal funding streams.

– Prioritize vulnerable populations, including daycare centers.

– Don’t wait; construction costs will only get more expensive.

What’s interesting about what’s happening in Gary is that it isn’t being directed by the city and it isn’t just happening in Gary.

Instead, it’s being driven by Indiana-American Water, which is part of a large private utility company that supplies water to communities all over the nation. Back in 2016, it began developing a plan to start removing what’s considered the private side of the lead service line, which runs from the public way to the home. To do that, they had to get Indiana lawmakers to grant them the authority.

At first, they are focusing on areas with old water mains and lots of lead service lines. By combining the two jobs they can save money on excavation and crews. They are also reducing the individual financial burden by spreading it out. All of the people in Indiana-American Water’s coverage area are seeing a fee increase, whether they have lead lines or not.

This might not work as well in Chicago, because only about 18% of Indiana-American ratepayers have lead lines, whereas in Chicago, about 80 percent of homes do. So, there would be fewer homeowners without lead lines to help absorb the cost. Chicago also has more lead lines than all of Indiana Water’s coverage area combined. In a recent interview with trade publication Municipal Sewer & Water, Chicago Water Commissioner Randy Conner estimated cost of the work here at between $4 and $8 billion.

Still, Matt Prine, the head of Indiana-American Water, feels that Chicago leaders should find a way to get started — and they should do that sooner than later.

“It’s not going away and it’s frankly increasing year over year,” he says. “Materials are going to go up and labor is going to go up. So the sooner you begin, the better.”

Stop 2: Cincinnati, Ohio

Number of lead service lines: 43,000 in the Greater Cincinnati Water Works service area.

Type of water service: A public utility serving the greater Cincinnati area.

Estimated completion date: 2032.

What homeowners pay: Most homeowners pay around $2,100 out of pocket, while HELP program recipients can pay around $1,400.

Funding mechanisms:

– Capital funding for the public side of the line.

– Operating funds help homeowners with the private side.

– Private funding for the HELP (Help Eliminate Lead Pipes) program assists low-income homeowners with up to 70 percent of their total bill. It’s supported by city employee donations, private donations, and fundraisers.

– One payment option (for qualified homeowners) is to roll the cost into property taxes so the burden can be spread out over years and, in some cases, among subsequent homeowners.

Takeaways for Chicago:

– The city doesn’t have to pay for all the costs, but it can make it more affordable for homeowners to pay their share.

– Offer long-term payment mechanisms (like rolling it into property taxes).

– Get creative with fundraisers that can not only raise money but also raise awareness about the issue.

– Just get started.

In water safety circles, Cincinnati’s model is seen as one of the most proactive and creative in the country. It was initiated by the water department, was shepherded through City Council by Vice Mayor Chris Smitherman and relies on community donations to fund the most progressive parts of it.

In 2017, the Cincinnati City Council enacted a law that basically prohibited lead service line connections to homes. Most homeowners have more than a decade to get rid of the lines unless a triggering event happens  and in that case they have to remove the line in 45 days. These events include water main replacement work in the area, a leak on their line, or other construction work that disturbs the line and increases lead levels in the water.

If they work with the city to remove the line, they only have to pay a portion of the cost  and even that can be paid off over time. Qualifying low-income residents can get additional help and pay as little as 30 percent, through the city’s Help Eliminate Lead Pipes program. The program is funded through city worker donations, private funds and even old-fashioned fundraising parties at local breweries.

“A lot of the breweries here in Cincinnati love the fact that they get good, clean drinking water for their beer,” says Tiffaney Hardy of the Greater Cincinnati Water Works. “So, we have [brewery] fundraisers where people come out and support their community. It’s a great way to get people out and have a call to action and really get the lead service lines out of our neighborhoods.”

The rules also require landlords to disclose the presence of lead service lines to prospective renters. Others can check for lead line locations through an interactive online map that citizens are encouraged to help update as more lead lines are found.

When asked what advice she’d have for Chicago, Cincinnati’s deputy water director Verna Arnette passed on the same advice she says she got from officials in Lansing, Mich.

“Just get started,” she said. “You have to realize you are going to make changes over time as you progress and learn, but you need to get started.”

Stop 3: Detroit, Michigan

Number of lead service lines: 100,000 to 125,000.

Type of water service: The Detroit Water and Sewer Department is a public utility.

Estimated completion date: January 1, 2041. (According to the revised Michigan Lead and Copper Rule, all of the state’s municipalities have 20 years to completely remove their lead service lines; Detroit officials have said they lack the funds to do it that quickly.)

What individual homeowners pay: nothing so far.

Funding mechanisms:

– Leveraging the Great Lakes Water Authority lease payments to sell bonds.

– Increased revenue from improved water and sewer bill collections.

– Federally-funded Drinking Water Revolving State Funds.

Takeaways for Chicago:

– Communicate with residents, city departments and workers about why lead removal is important. Without changes in the law, this is key to getting permission to do lead service line work on the private portion of the pipe, located on homeowners’ property.

– Replace lead lines during water main work (as much as still possible) to reduce costs.

– Tap into available funds, including low-interest federal loans.

Detroit may seem like an unlikely model for city planning, but it offers valuable lessons for towns with lots of lead service lines and little money.

The biggest lesson may be the power of a state law to compel even a big, money- stretched city to initiate a massive project. Detroit officials have said they don’t have the money to complete lead service line removal in 20 years, as the new state law requires. The city even unsuccessfully sued to stop some of the law’s provisions. But today they are rolling up their sleeves and getting on with the process.

Like Indiana, Detroit is saving some money on the project by combining lead line and water main replacement work.

“[The savings come] because you are already there, you’ve already begun excavation and you are doing the digging,” says Deputy Water Director Palencia Mobley. “You get about $1,500 to $2,000 savings per property that way. But if you come back and do it separate, you are going to pay more.”

Unfortunately, Chicago has already replaced more than 700 miles of water main over the last decade, mostly under Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s watch. Throughout much of that process advocates implored the Emanuel administration to remove the lead at the same time, but to no avail.

Mobley says that being clear about the risks of continuing to use a lead pipe to deliver water to homes has also been an important part of their plan because the city needs to get permission from homeowners to work on their property.

“You need to be trying to communicate ahead of time and to get folks to understand what you need to do,” she says.

To this end, her representatives set up lawn chairs in neighborhoods where water main work is planned in order to educate neighbors about the value of replacing their lead lines before the work starts.

Many Detroiters, including Dee Dee Glover, were relieved to hear they could get new water lines, especially after the crisis in nearby Flint.

“I know a lot of people who have gotten sick [from lead]” Glover says. “My nephew in Rhode Island has gotten sick. He was two months old at the time and they didn’t know there was lead in the water and there was lead in the house also. And he is slow learning now. So it does affect you really bad.”

Looking ahead in Chicago

Even if Lightfoot hasn’t gotten started just yet, her administration is light years ahead of previous mayors because she at least admits there’s a problem. She has acknowledged that the Rahm Emanuel administration missed a big chance to address the issue during main replacement work. And, in June, Lightfoot assigned a top official  deputy Mayor Anne Sheahan  to devise a lead line removal plan.

When WBEZ asked for comments on that potential plan, however, Lightfoot office sent only this:

“In 2018, the Chicago Department of Water Management (DWM) commissioned a report from nationally-recognized experts in the field to determine the feasibility and framework of what would be a multi-billion-dollar program to potentially replace lead service lines (LSL). The report, which will outline industry practices, investigate available technology, and assess both federal and state funding options, will be considered as Chicago explores its options for a potential LSL replacement program. Because Chicago has more lead service lines than any city in the country, with a large portion of these lines in private property, the scope of a replacement program is massive and complex and would require extensive community engagement and a phased implementation.”

So, they’re still waiting for the report? Well, it’s unclear.

Soon after we received the statement from Lightfoot’s office, Water Department officials offered more reasons for the continued delay:

“The report will be released when the experts and administration are confident that the recommendations included in it are fiscally and logistically appropriate, achievable and sustainable.”

It’s not clear when a $4 billion-plus plan will seem fiscally “appropriate” to city leaders. But what is clear is that Chicago can’t begin to solve the problem — or make a dent in our 4,500 miles of lead service lines — until we just get started.

This story has been supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.