Supply chain issues slow Milwaukee lead service line replacement in 2022

Milwaukee's replacement of lead service lines is expected to fall short of the 1,100 budgeted this year due to significant supply chain challenges, the city's Water Works superintendent said Wednesday.

The city is on pace to replace more than 900 lead service lines this year and remains on about a six-decade timeline to replace all the lead water pipes, Superintendent Patrick Pauly told the Common Council's Public Works Committee.

About 66,600 active residential lead service lines remain in Milwaukee, according to the city. Current estimates put the total cost to replace all the city's lead service lines at about $750 million.

Lead poisoning can carry lifelong consequences, particularly for young children, and there is no safe level of exposure. Sources include paint chips and plumbing that carries drinking water.

At some points this year, Milwaukee Water Works was down to just dozens of various parts and had to slow the replacement process, he said. That issue has largely eased, he said, and the department has pre-ordered many parts for 2023.

At this point, he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, he believed the department had enough materials to complete projects contractors are capable of taking on in the remaining three months of this year.

More: Mayor Johnson calls 70-year timeline for replacing lead pipes 'unacceptable' at mayor council on water equity

Lead service line replacements had increased from 622 in 2017 — the year the city started systematic replacements — to 1,000 in 2019, before dropping to 888 in 2020, the first year of the pandemic. Last year, 984 were replaced, according to data he presented to the committee.

Next year's proposed budget includes funding for 1,200 replacements, Pauly said, adding he hoped to exceed that figure.

Still, he called that 100-line increase between this year and next "conservative" and said the plan was based on the expected continuation of supply chain issues and unknowns about additional funding that is expected to become available.

'Potential program expansion'

A "potential program expansion" could come from the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure law, from which the city expects to receive funding in late summer 2023, he told the committee.

Still, the extent to which that funding will expand the city's capacity to replace the lead water pipes is not currently clear.

Water Works is also looking to overlay maps of lead service lines, socioeconomic factors and, potentially, elevated blood lead levels in children to create a prioritization plan for replacements.

Water Works is in conversations with the city Health Department, which responds to children with elevated blood lead levels and oversees the process for abating houses of lead paint, to determine how to acquire the elevated blood lead level data, Pauly said.

City 'not diligent' in water filter distribution

He also reported that the department was "not diligent" in ensuring that water filter pitchers were handed out to residents during replacements, specifically during the lengthy construction along Humboldt Boulevard in Riverwest.

As of June 30, the city had distributed 385 filters this year while 529 lead service lines had been replaced, he told the committee. Past years' tallies show more water filters distributed than service line replacements.

Pauly told the Journal Sentinel that staff members are instructed to personally hand filters to residents. Because the Humboldt Boulevard project was a planned replacement as opposed to one resulting from a leak or pipe failure, there was less face-to-face contact with residents, and he thought staff members were hesitant to leave filters on doorsteps.

City officials reached out to see if residents needed their water tested after realizing the problem, he said.

Of the 243 properties that were part of the Humboldt Boulevard project, 51 of them completed testing, Water quality manager Michelle Natarajan said. There were 166 that expressed interest and received a testing kit, but many did not return it.

Pauly said residents were asked if they wanted to take part in testing regardless of whether they received a filter pitcher.

Contact Alison Dirr at 414-224-2383 or adirr@jrn.com. Follow her on Twitter @AlisonDirr.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Supply chain issues slow Milwaukee lead service line replacement