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The slow horror of Wisconsin’s lead pipes

Legislators once again take an unconscionable stance on upgrading our water infrastructure.

Legislators once again take an unconscionable stance on upgrading our water infrastructure.

Photo: The use of lead water pipes dates back at least to ancient Rome. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

No matter how jaded you get about Wisconsin politics, our state Legislature’s refusal to address lead water pipes remains heartbreaking. This horror often gets obscured in the greater shuffle of the state budget process, but government officials who neglect this problem are poisoning children. Not many political issues are as simple as “you are poisoning children.” This one is. 

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The human body has no use for lead. There is no safe level of lead for a person to ingest. But even though lead is a highly toxic metal, your body stores it rather than flushing it all out. A little bit here and there adds up over time, and children are particularly vulnerable to the worst effects, including effects on their brain development. We as a society have made exceptional, life-saving progress on phasing out lead in paint, gasoline, and other common products. To leave it in some of our most essential infrastructure is unconscionable. 

Congress and the Biden Administration could make this a moot point with a $2 trillion infrastructure bill that includes $45 billion to replace all of the lead water pipes in the United States—assuming that Congressional Democrats advance the bill without watering it down too much, and assuming that Wisconsin Republicans don’t find some absurd way to turn down the money for spite. Republicans have made a habit of inaction on this no-brainer public-health and infrastructure problem, amidst the power grabs and unhinged Holocaust comments

Earlier in June, the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee rejected a proposal in Democratic Governor Tony Evers’ budget that would have provided $40 million to help property owners replace lead service lines—the pipes that run from a public water main to an individual building. Wisconsin news outlets including Wisconsin Public Radio and Up North News have reported on this, as legislators get into the nitty-gritty of budgetary evisceration. Republicans rejected a similar proposal in the state’s last biennial budget cycle, complaining that it would have sent too much money to Milwaukee, where most of the lead service lines are.

The progress Wisconsin has made on lead pipes is inadequate, given the scale of the problem. Federal, state, and local governments have put in a few million here and there, toward what is really at least a billion-dollar problem. We learned this week that Wisconsin is on course to attract a $4.4 billion windfall in surplus tax revenues over the next three years. There can be no excuse for inaction. The Legislature should provisionally put up the money to root out every single lead pipe we can find across the state, then draw on federal funds once the federal infrastructure plan (hopefully) goes through. 

The state has taken its sweet time on replacing lead water pipes. The Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that Wisconsin has about 176,000 of them, though the EPA has acknowledged that this number is incomplete. Communities around the state are replacing their lead service lines, at a gradual pace, as the state uses federal dollars to fund replacement programs. Additionally, some individual cities have gotten creative. For instance, Madison used revenue from leases on cell-phone towers, and buy-in from homeowners, to fund a historic effort to get rid of every lead service line in the city. Green Bay recently followed suit, using its share of leftover money from the Lambeau Field sales tax. In 2018, then-Governor Scott Walker signed into law a bill that makes it easier for public water utilities to help pay for lead service line replacement. (Long story short, this used to be a legal headache because the service lines cross between public and private property.) That bill did not create new state funding for the problem, so it’s still going to have a limited impact for utilities that don’t have money to spare or aren’t willing to raise their rates.

Now, even Madison’s water isn’t entirely lead-free. Lead is a naturally occurring element, which means it can contaminate our groundwater sources from the start. In places that do have lead pipes, various other chemicals in the water (including some that water utilities add to treat other contaminants) react with the lead, causing it to corrode over time and seep into water. Putting a filter on your faucet can help, but doesn’t solve the underlying problem of a decaying and literally toxic infrastructure. People are mostly made of water. When you’re drinking it, bathing in it, and cooking with it, there’s only so much risk you can really accept. 

Even if you think we can reasonably manage the health risks, upgrading water pipes is a good investment. It would tune up our water infrastructure, pay people for materials, and pay people for the work. The conventional wisdom in politics is that major infrastructure spending is a hard sell, a massive price tag for something unsexy. But I think most ordinary people are more than ready to move past that attitude. Nationwide polling on the Biden Administration’s proposed $2 billion infrastructure plan suggests that a narrow majority of voters support it, and that a narrow majority favor Biden’s plan over a Republican counter-proposal. .

Republicans in Wisconsin are blocking funds for lead pipe replacement because they simply love any chance to treat Milwaukee as a punching bag and stir up more resentment in the areas they consider the “real Wisconsin.” Milwaukee is a place full of people they’ve already written off. But lead pipes, and water quality concerns writ large, give the lie to simple urban-vs.-rural narratives. It makes sense that Milwaukee would get the lion’s share of funding for lead pipe replacement, because it’s got more people, more buildings, and more infrastructure built during the time when people were still using lead pipes in new construction. But dozens of other Wisconsin communities large and small have lead service lines in the ground. They all deserve safe drinking water and they will all suffer as long as Wisconsin continues to neglect this problem.

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