lead water service
An illustration of a typical water service line and ownership responsibilities.

Replacing the roughly 26,600 lead water service lines in the area served by Saint Paul Regional Water Services (SPRWS) could cost as much as $275 million. Yet replacement is needed not just for health reasons, but to meet changing federal regulations designed to better protect the public from exposure to lead.

The SPRWS Board of Water Commissioners on January 11 heard a presentation on the extent of lead water service replacement needed and will consider an accelerated 10-year plan for replacing all such pipes when it meets again on February 8.

Young children are particularly vulnerable to lead exposure. “We know it’s the right thing to do,” said Mara Humphrey, chair of the water board. However, she conceded that replacing lead service lines has a big price tag.

“It’s not a cheap problem,” said David Wagner, engineering division manager for SPRWS. In today’s dollars, replacement of all lead service lines in the utility’s system would cost $223 million. However, factor in inflation and street repairs, and the cost could reach $275 million.

The average age of lead service lines in the SPRWS system is 100 years. They were installed up through the mid- to late 1920s, though Wagner said there are instances where they were installed into the ’40s. 

SPRWS is tracking where lead water service lines still exist. The 26,660 number comes from 8,900 lines of full lead service in the street right-of-way and on private property, and another 11,200 where there is copper pipe in the right-of-way and lead pipe on private property. Another 6,500 private properties have pipes of unknown materials.

Most of SPRWS’s lead water service connectors are in Saint Paul, with about 500 in West Saint Paul and smaller numbers in other cities that are part of the utility’s system.

“It’s not a cheap problem,” said David Wagner, engineering division manager for SPRWS. In today’s dollars, replacement of all lead service lines in the utility’s system would cost $223 million. However, factor in inflation and street repairs, and the cost could reach $275 million.

SPRWS has been replacing about 400 lead service lines a year in street rights-of-way when roads are rebuilt or water mains replaced. The replacement program has gone on for more than 25 years.

Typically, only about 5-10 percent of property owners opt to replace the section of lead pipe extending onto their private property in conjunction with the road work. That is even with the option of having the costs paid back with property taxes over a 20-year period. The cost to replace a lead water service line on private property is about $6,000.

SPRWS had state funding in 2021 that provided $1,500 for general applicants and $2,500 for low-income applicants and registered child-care providers to replace their lead water service on private property. That resulted in 24 percent of property owners opting to replace their lead service lines in road project areas. Still, Wagner said, only a few low-income people and childcare providers took advantage of the funds.

Moving forward, one possibility Wagner raised is that the voluntary replacement of lead service lines on private property may have to become mandatory. That is a policy decision the water board would have to make.

A variety of new funding sources are also being eyed to replace lead water service lines. One is from the federal American Rescue Plan, and another is $40 million in state funds. Other grants, loans and bonding have also been suggested, as has a water rate increase.

A major factor driving lead pipe replacement are revisions to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s lead and copper pipes rule, which take effect in October 2024. The rule puts more stringent testing and water quality regulations in place. SPRWS will have to work with the Minnesota Department of Health on a stepped-up lead water service replacement program.

SPRWS staff also asked Saint Paul’s Truth in Sale of Housing Board last year to require information about lead water service when a home is being purchased. The board denied the request, so City Council members Chris Tolbert and Dai Thao may ask for the change via council action.

Tolbert called for “bold action” to replace all lead pipes in the SPRWS system. “We all agree that there’s no level of lead that’s safe in a child’s bloodstream,” he said. “We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to use state and federal resources for this. We need to get every lead pipe out of Saint Paul.”

Property owners can see if they have lead water service lines via an interactive map at tinyurl.com/3652bn25. SPRWS also provides free kits for testing lead at its headquarters at 1900 Rice St. For information, contact 651-266-6270 or water-lead-replacements@stpaul.gov.

— Jane McClure

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