A new analysis published by the American Water Works Assn. estimates 6.1 million lead service lines remain in U.S. communities, suggesting progress in lead service line removal over the past two decades but indicating an estimated $30 billion challenge remains.
When the Lead and Copper Rule was instituted in 1991, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated there were 10.2 million lead service lines nationwide.
“Communities have taken positive steps for more than two decades to reduce lead exposure from water and other sources,” said AWWA CEO David LaFrance. “But there is clearly much more to be done. The Flint crisis lays bare a simple fact: As long as there are lead pipes in the ground or lead plumbing in homes, some risk remains. As a society, we should seize this moment of increased awareness about lead risks to develop solutions for getting the lead out.”
The study, titled National Survey of Lead Service Line Occurrence, is authored by David A. Cornwell, PhD, PE, BCEE, and Richard A. Brown, PE, of Environmental Engineering & Technology (EE&T, Inc), and Steve H. Via, AWWA regulatory affairs manager. The complete study is available online and a printed summary will be included in the Journal—American Water Works Assn.’s April issue.
“Approximately 7% of the homes connected to community water systems have a lead service line,” said Dr. Cornwell, president of EE&T. “There are about 15 to 22 million Americans nationally served by lead lines.” In most cases, lead service lines are owned partially by the water utility and partially by property owners.
Other key takeaways from the study include:
- The analysis suggests the number of remaining lead service lines could be as high as 7.1 million and as low as 5.5 million.
- Approximately 11,200 community water systems currently have at least some lead service lines within their service areas.
- Regionally, the largest concentration of remaining lead service lines is in the Midwest, with an estimated 3.4 million.
The analysis was based on results from two AWWA-sponsored surveys, one in 2011 and one in 2013. Combined responses were from 978 community water systems in 49 states plus the District of Columbia. The analysis was commissioned in 2015 by AWWA to assist EPA and others as they evaluate revisions to the Lead and Copper Rule.
On March 7, AWWA’s board voted unanimously to support recommendations from the National Drinking Water Advisory Council (NDWAC) that strengthen the Lead and Copper Rule and will ultimately result in the complete removal of lead service lines.
“The water community’s first priority is to provide safe water for everyone,” LaFrance said. “The AWWA board’s support for the NDWAC recommendations underscores the importance of protecting families today from lead exposure and a shared responsibility among utilities, customers, property owners and government for the complete removal of lead service lines over time.”
Lead is unlike other potential contaminants in that it is rarely present in the water coming from treatment plants and water mains; rather it comes from lead service lines and home plumbing. Under the Lead and Copper Rule, utilities collect samples from homes thought to be of high risk for lead. They use results from those samples to indicate if the utility should adjust water chemistry to protect against lead leaching into the water.
“If the average cost of replacing each remaining lead service line is $5,000—a reasonable estimate—the collective cost could easily top $30 billion,” LaFrance said. “This is in addition to $1 trillion needed over 25 years to repair and expand buried drinking water mains. So as communities and as a broader society, we must advance a serious discussion on how we pay to get the lead out.
“Part of this discussion must focus on affordability for customers,” LaFrance added. “Generally, water service is priced well below its value, but many families struggle to meet essential needs. Utilities and customers will have to work collaboratively in many cases to remove lead service lines. There may also be opportunities to learn from and expand existing government assistance programs that address other sources of exposure such as lead paint and dust.”