Ensuring Communities Have Access to
Replacing lead service lines (LSLs) costs money. With 6 to 10 million LSLs to replace, cost estimates range from 16 to 80 billion dollars and likely will be borne by the water utility and the community.
Through their basic water bills, customers typically fund the costs of developing an inventory of LSLs, designing a replacement initiative, and communicating to consumers. They are also typically responsible for the costs of replacing the utility-owned portion of the LSL. However, state and local policies may restrict use of ratepayer funds to replace LSLs on private property, because it is perceived as benefitting the property owners and not the ratepayers.
If individual property owners are expected to bear the entire cost of replacing an LSL on their property, the process will likely be slower than if funded by ratepayers or other funding sources. Property owners have to concur with the need, secure the funding, and make the necessary arrangements. Additionally, some property owners, especially those with low property values or low incomes, may be unable or unwilling to participate, despite the risk posed by lead. As a result, without financial assistance, low-income customers and renters may have greater exposure to lead from LSLs than those who are able to pay. This situation raises environmental justice concerns. As a policy matter, programs encouraging removal of LSLs as a public health measure, need to consider providing adequate funding or assistance and prioritization to ensure the benefits of the initiative apply to all consumers.
Beyond LSLs, it is important to realize that our nation’s drinking water infrastructure is chronically underfunded. This is especially challenging for small and rural communities. Utilities have many competing priorities. EPA’s most recent Drinking Water Infrastructure Needs Survey, published in 2011, identified a total of $384 billion in capital improvement needs from over the next 20 years (2011 through 2031). This need is substantially greater than the $32 billion provided by the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (DWSRF) since its inception in 1997.
State drinking water programs, to which EPA has delegated authority to regulate public water systems under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), are also underfunded. December 2013 Association of State Drinking Water Administrators (ASDWA) report estimated annual costs of the projected national minimum base and comprehensive programs are approximately $625 million and $748 million, respectively. However, ASDWA reported that funding levels (from all sources, federal and state) are $385 million for the minimum base program and $440 million for the comprehensive program.
State and federal governments could support local efforts to replace LSLs by finding the means to help utilities and communities get access to needed funding. Opportunities include: