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Laying the Groundwork for Lead Service Line Replacement

Actions and policies municipalities can put in place now to prepare for developing a lead service line inventory and replacement plan.

Cheryl Watson, GRCorps member and Justin Keller collecting data (image courtesy Anna Wolf, CNT)

As state lawmakers continue to debate the potential for a statewide solution to lead service line replacement, some local communities are already moving ahead on this issue (What’s so bad about lead pipes?). Chicago launched an equity-focused plan to cover the full cost of replacing lead service lines for eligible low-income residents and is waiving permit fees for other homeowners. Elgin developed a lead service line replacement plan, passed an ordinance allowing for voluntary replacement by homeowners, offers city-backed loans to cover the costs, and applied for $4 million for Illinois EPA to replace lead service lines in coordination with other road construction or other projects.

A statewide solution is needed, but there are actions municipalities can take now to be prepared when legislation passes.

Gathering data for an inventory

Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) and the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT) worked with the Village of Hazel Crest to develop an inventory of lead service lines. We used the statistical modeling methodology pioneered by BlueConduit, the team behind Flint’s inventory. First, we started with data on confirmed lead service line locations in the Hazel Crest area, based on sampling and visual inspection. Using probabilistic analysis, we then used data on year of construction, residence type (e.g., number of stories), manufacture date of the nearest fire hydrant, and other characteristics that could be used in predictive analysis. The model assigned a range of percentages indicating the probability that a given property has a lead service line.

Image courtesy 1Day Review (CC BY 2.0)

In addition to the data mentioned above, other records may be useful in predicting the presence of a lead service line, such as construction records which may indicate service line material, local ordinances mandating (or banning) the use of certain materials, or other records which can give clues as to where lead exists. Some of these records may pre-date computers, and, in the case of Hazel Crest, a team from IBM’s Service Corps used optical character recognition technology to digitize hand-written records.

Additionally, socioeconomic data is available from the U.S. Census which can inform a lead service line replacement plan which prioritizes vulnerable populations (i.e., taking the inventory and developing a plan of attack for replacement). The data you’ll need to compile may include the location of single-parent families, non-native English speakers, median household income, percent unemployment, percent of households with children, percent of households below poverty, and percent households of color. For Hazel Crest, we pulled this data at the block group level. 

Think, also, about strategic partnerships with local school districts, healthcare institutions, and charity organizations which may have detailed information above and beyond what is tracked by the Census.

Statistical modeling can be a huge cost-saver for a municipality, increasing the possibility of hitting a lead service line during excavation.

Public education is key

Lead exposure is a growing issue nationwide, and navigating the publicity requires impactful public education and awareness initiatives. When developing and implementing a lead in water initiatives, municipalities should take the lead on communicating with the community and remaining transparent throughout the process. 

Public education materials can include website content, newsletter content, printed fliers, and, if your community has a public-access television channel, a recorded Public Service Announcement. Municipalities should also consider proactively speaking to community groups, block clubs, etc. The Lead Service Line Replacement (LSLR) Collaborative recommends that municipalities “select representatives designated to speak to customers, officials and media very carefully and train them well.” This ensures the message coming from leaders in the community remains consistent.

The LSLR Collaborative’s Communicating about Lead Service Lines webpage is a useful resource, as are the American Water Works Association’s Communicating About Lead Service Lines guide and their shareable Together, Let’s Get the Lead Out video.

It is important to keep the public informed on this important issue and, if appropriate, invite their participation in the decision-making process. Providing a variety of formats allows people to engage with the information in the way that is most comfortable for them and should account for the digital divide. If your community has a large percentage of residents for whom English is not their first language, take that into account when developing materials.

Codify legal authority
Image courtesy 1Day Review (CC BY 2.0)

Passing an ordinance, or resolution, gives your municipality the necessary framework or authority to take action on lead. This can include a wide range of actions, starting from a simple resolution to take action on mitigating the impact of lead in water. A resolution like this demonstrates buy-in from elected officials and provides staff with a clear mandate to follow. More stringent options include a mandated replacement, such as when a lead service line is found to be leaking or damaged.

Newark, NJ, passed an ordinance requiring all residents to register for lead service line replacement and grants city workers access to private property if residents do not comply. This is an extreme example of involving legal authority, but elected officials should sit down with public works staff to determine what course of action is right for your community. 

Take action now and be prepared for state legislation

The cost of inaction is huge, and the impact is inequitably dispersed. Now is the time for action. State legislators are discussing a bill that would require all Illinois communities to develop a lead service line inventory and replacement plan. 

Communities can get to work now. Start gathering data, develop a public education strategy and get your officials and staff in alignment on your next steps to address this critical public health issue.


This project was a collaboration between MPC’s Drinking Water 1-2-3 Academy and CNT’s Great Lakes Water Infrastructure Program