Katy Hansen, Senior Advisor for Water
A major federal program – the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund – has provided nearly $25 billion to help finance drinking water improvements since 1997. States have considerable discretion to decide which types of drinking water needs to address with the funds. Given the significant health and economic impacts of lead exposure from water pipes, we analyzed descriptions of 7,108 projects financed from 2010 to 2019, as reported in the Project Benefits Reporting system, to see how state agencies are using the fund for lead service line (LSL) replacement.
Not many states are using the fund to finance lead pipe replacement yet. Of the over $18.7 billion allocated from DWSRF between 2010-2019, less than $180 million (<.01%) was spent on LSL replacement projects.
Rhode Island has financed the most LSL replacement projects with Drinking Water SRF funds ($49.2 million, $46.5 per capita) followed by Wisconsin ($26.6 million, $4.5 per capita). Rhode Island’s funding supported a small number of larger projects in Providence. However, Wisconsin spread their financing for LSL replacement out to over 60 projects across much smaller communities.
There is no particular time-trend in the use of SRF program for LSL replacement. The spikes are driven by individual state programs - Rhode Island in 2013 and Wisconsin in 2017-2019.
Of the $180 million spent on LSL from 2010 to 2019, about two-thirds exclusively financed lead pipe replacement. The remaining third financed projects where a small portion was used to replace lead service lines but most of the funds were for other types of drinking water infrastructure.
The launch of new programs in Massachusetts, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and other states suggest we will see a significant increase in lead service line replacement funding through the SRF in future years. There are 17 states that are already using SRF dollars for LSL replacements or have committed to do so. The Water Infrastructure Fund Transfer Act (WIFTA) of 2019 allowed states to transfer unspent funds from the Clean Water SRF to the Drinking Water SRF for lead-related projects and 10 states availed of that opportunity. We can expect to see additional projects in those states in the next year.
If the country is going to see all its toxic lead water pipes replaced in less than a generation, these state initiatives are already showing the way. What will it take to make that happen? All states should clarify that their SRFs can be used for this purpose, including for private-side replacement (unless expressly prohibited by state law, which is uncommon. More states should replicate the efforts of states like Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Wisconsin to build programs that make LSL replacement a priority and combine SRF support with additional technical assistance on inventory development.