What can communities do about lead in drinking water? - Metropolitan Planning Council

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What can communities do about lead in drinking water?

From inventories to public education, here's how local leaders can take action on lead

"Leaky faucet" courtesy of Doug, Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

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An estimated 6 million leaded service lines deliver drinking water to households across the United States, and when these lines leach lead into drinking water, it poses a serious public health problem. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, states and cities are working to issue moratoriums on water shutoffs and reconnect service to those that have been shut offbut it’s important to recognize that running water doesn’t necessarily mean clean water. 

The Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT) and MPC teamed up to apply lead service line inventory and planning practices in two suburbs south of Chicago—Flossmoor and Hazel Crest—to better understand the challenges and opportunities. Here are some steps any community can take.

Over the past several years, in large part prompted by the public health crisis in Flint, MI, caused by lead in drinking water, states and communities have been outlining policies and practices to get the lead out of drinking water supplies. While the focus in this current moment is to ensure that our communities come out on the other side of COVID-19 as unscathed as possible, there is a huge opportunity to ensure that stimulus and recovery dollars are invested in improving how systems work for people, including making infrastructure safer for renters and owners. 

First, though, let’s get a handle on why lead is such a big deal and what’s actually required of local governments and water utilities. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have established that there is no safe level of lead in drinking water (though, per the Lead and Copper Rule, the U.S. EPA’s action level is set at 15 parts per billion). Lead poisoning, largely thought to be driven by exposure to lead based paint and contaminated soil, causes particularly dire neurological and early developmental health impacts in vulnerable (younger, older, and immunocompromised) populations. In the aftermath of Flint, Michigan’s water quality and associated public health crisis, the EPA issued a letter urging states to take a closer look at lead in drinking water and begin the process of inventorying and disclosing lead service line locations. 

In addition to the periodic sampling required by the Lead and Copper Rule, since 2018 community water systems in Illinois have been required to develop and submit a water distribution system material inventory annually. This inventory must include the total number of service lines connected to the system and the materials from which they are made. As of 2018 Reporting Year, the number of service line connections in Illinois totals 3,842,374, of which nearly a million are lead or copper with lead solder, and just over a million are of an unknown material. 

But what does all of this mean on the ground? Where do communities start? 

What are the steps to getting the lead out?

  • Pass a municipal ordinance or resolution
  • Create a service line inventory
  • Develop a public education campaign
  • Design a replacement plan
  • Develop a funding plan
  • Advocate for state and federal action
  • Implement

Many steps may occur concurrentlye.g., while compiling an inventory, a community might also be developing communications materials and rolling out an outreach/engagement strategy.

  • Pass a municipal ordinance or resolution

While this does not happen everywhere, as communities begin to take action on lead in drinking water, some elect to pass a municipal ordinance or resolution.  This can range from a commitment to action or, as in the City of Elgin, provide for voluntary replacement. The City of Newark, NJ, has much more stringent ordinance which prohibits the existence of lead service lines and has a mandatory replacement program.

Although the Lead and Copper Rule currently allows “partial service line replacement”meaning the community water system may replace only the portion of the service line which they own and leave the privately-owned portion in placepartial replacement has been shown to pose a greater risk due to higher concentrations in the short term, "ranging from days to months, and potentially even longer."  Therefore, at minimum, municipal ordinances should ban partial replacement within their jurisdiction.

  • Create a service line inventory

Communities should create an inventory of the locations and material make-up of service lines.  A clear picture of the prevalence of lead service lines throughout a service area can help community decision-makers better understand the time and financial requirements necessary to get started on a replacement program. Crucial to note is that the only way to know with certainty where lead services are located throughout a community is by digging and checking. However, Illinois EPA does not require that municipalities unearth service lines when submitting their inventory, and there is merit in developing a preliminary desktop analysis of where lead service lines might be located. Predictions based on age of home, build of home, and other home and neighborhood characteristics can return a high degree of accuracy.

For example, CNT’s inventory for Flossmoor and Hazel Crest is informed both by municipally-owned data, like water main replacement locations, historical building and plumbing permits, and community-administered surveys, as well as data from the Cook County Assessor, Illinois EPA, and the American Community Survey.  Beyond collected data, CNT also applies weights to different variables in order to predict the likelihood of a lead service line being present. They have partnered with IBM’s Service Corps team and are also working closely with researchers and data scientists from Georgia Institute of Technology, University of Michigan, and Brigham Young University who developed this predictive desktop analysis approach in Flint.  

  • Develop a public education campaign

Public education is a key element of any lead service line replacement program. The Lead and Copper Rule requires communication only when high concentrations of lead or copper trigger intervention, but communities can communicate lead risks now. Many residents do not know sources of lead exposure and will look to their elected leaders for what risks exist and how they can mitigate those risks. Municipal staff and elected leaders should listen to community members' concerns and be proactive about communicating accurate and comprehensive information. Consider where the information will be housed so that community members can easily access it, e.g., a dedicated page on community website, social media accounts, hotline, and printed materials. Ensure these materials provide the necessary level of information but are also easy to read and understand.

There are many online resources discussing the sources of lead in water, the risks of lead exposure, how residents can get their water tested, and actions they can take to protect themselves. The American Water Works Association and the Lead Service Line Replacement Collaborative have great resources for developing a public education campaign.

  • Design a replacement plan

Municipalities should aim to replace a percentage of their lead service lines every year. The replacement rate can vary based on the total number of lead service lines. For example, communities with fewer than 250 should aim to replace 20%/year, resulting in all lines replaced within 5 years;  communities with significantly more, say 10,000-50,000 lead service lines, should aim for 5%/year. Regardless of the rate of replacement, communities should target the most impacted areas and prioritize vulnerable populations, such as children, pregnant women, immunocompromised, and low-income residents. 

  • Develop a funding plan

Whether municipalities budget to replace lead service lines as part of capital improvement planning, share costs with homeowners, or receive grant or loan funding, ultimately, someone has to pay for it. The U.S. EPA and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) recently launched a website with resources for communities which include information about federal financing and funding programs for lead service line replacement. These include Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, HUD Community Development Block Grant, Assistance for Small and Disadvantaged Communities Grant, Reducing Lead in Drinking Water Grant, and Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA). These programs offer a variety of assistance including loans with principal forgiveness, low-interest loans, and grants to assist with replacement programs.

  • Advocate for state and federal action

Some utilities—and especially ones that serve predominantly low-income communities—will not be able secure the necessary funding to implement a robust lead service line program. For one, they may not be able to raise rates sufficiently to cover the cost without additionally burdening a significant portion of the population. Many of those same utilities also struggle to access the federal assistance programs (like the State Revolving Fund) that could help pay for lead service line replacement.

State and federal grant funding could be a major source of lead service line replacement revenue. As Congress debates additional stimulus packages to respond to COVID-19, water utilities should make their voices heard.

  • Implement

Implementation of a lead service line replacement plan can take various forms. Some communities establish a dedicated plan of attack which targets areas of their community—either with a higher concentration of known lead service lines or areas with at-risk populations—and then working through the list until all have been replaced. Other approaches take advantage of existing public works projects, such as street repaving or water main replacement. Doing work when the street is already torn up leads to substantial cost savings. 

In either case, communities can offer incentives or cost-sharing programs to defray costs by partnering with residents. For example, the City of Evanston offers to replace the portion of the service line from the water shutoff valve (usually located in the parkway) to the water main. The property owner pays to replace the portion extending from the valve to their home.  Similarly, the City of Berwyn incentivizes lead service line replacement by waiving the meter or service connection fee and then paying to replace any hardscape that was disrupted during construction. Again, though, these programs should aim to replace the entire service line, both the publically- and privately-owned portions. More information about implementation, as well as many other great resources, are available here.

The time for action is now.

The existence of lead in water supply delivery systems is a public health issue. Though the impact of lead is felt most by certain vulnerable populations, the costs accrue to society, and the time to take action is now. CNT and MPC have teamed up to help Flossmoor and Hazel Crestthrough the Great Lakes Water Infrastructure initiative and the Drinking Water 1-2-3 Academy, respectively—and the holistic approach outlined above can help any municipality ready to take action. 


Cheryl Watson, Sustainability Fellow / Cheryl is a member of the Greenest Region Corps, a partnership between the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus and AmeriCorps that pairs volunteers with communities for approximately 11 months to lead sustainability projects. She is working to support sustainability initiatives in the Village of Hazel Crest based on the Greenest Region Compact. She has a background in computer science, application development as well as science education and biology. Cheryl has been involved in local environmental and public health advocacy for many years, including being a longstanding member of the Calumet Stormwater Collaborative.

Anna Wolf, Project Manager, Water and Transportation | Anna joined the Center for Neighborhood Technology in 2015 and works on a variety of projects across the organization's Water and Transportation departments. She manages research and municipal outreach for CNT's Great Lakes Water Infrastructure Project, coordinates efforts on stormwater management components of the Elevated Chicago initiative, and facilitates the organization’s work on water infrastructure financing. Prior to joining CNT, Anna worked at the Alliance for the Great Lakes on water resource management projects and the organization’s invasive species policy campaign. Anna has a Master of Urban Planning and Policy from University of Illinois at Chicago, and a Bachelor of Arts in International Development and Spanish from Indiana University – Bloomington.

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