By Senator Lena C. Taylor
A few weeks ago, I was at an event with Vice President Kamala Harris. In her remarks, she mentioned federal funding to help replace lead lateral service lines across the country. Milwaukee continues to grapple with this threat to our residents’ health. Like other communities, we have lead-contaminated water due to aging lead lateral pipes.
Local and state leaders have known this for decades. In Milwaukee, our bad lines numbered 70,000, give or take a few pipes. In the nearly 6 years since the city started replacing lead service lines, we’ve only replaced about 4,000 lines in total. At this point, it’s fair to ask: what’s taking so long?
In Milwaukee, the presence of lead lateral pipes has been identified as a significant source of lead contamination in drinking water (along with lead paint). Lead is a toxic metal that can have serious health implications, especially for young children and pregnant women, leading to developmental delays, cognitive impairments, and a host of other health issues. While the urgency to address this issue has prompted the city to take some proactive measures to protect its residents, more needs to happen.
The Milwaukee Water Works (MWW) is seeking an outside firm to manage its growing lead service line replacement program. The city-owned utility expects 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. MWW is planning to replace 1,200 service lines in 2023, which in itself would be a record. But with the funding surge, it could replace 1,700 in 2024 and 2,200 in 2025, in comparison to 991 replaced in 2022.
President Biden’s new infrastructure law will invest $50 billion in improvements to water and wastewater infrastructure. Wisconsin should receive more than $370 million, with MWW requesting $30 million of that. Milwaukee Mayor Johnson said his original goal was to replace all lead service lines in the next 70 years, the new funding changes it to 20 years. Vice President Harris seemed to believe that we would have them replaced in 10 years.
Therefore, it’s understandable that community members and state leaders are just a bit frustrated. Milwaukee’s Water Works maintains the department is doing everything it can, and the pipes are being replaced as quickly as possible. Yet, we know that other cities, like Detroit, are doing five times the number of replacements as our city. Milwaukee still has roughly 66,000 lead service lines that need to be replaced.
Milwaukee must do better. There needs to be a sense of urgency that shows up in our planning and ability to scale up to meet an aggressive repair schedule. We have to look at best practices around the country, or right in our own backyard (Madison) to see how to make meaningful progress. The health of our residents demands no less.