Can we make Minnesota's drinking water lead-free?

by Trevor Russell

Lead in drinking water is especially harmful to children. In Minnesota, 100,000 homes still have lead service lines, a major source of lead exposure. FMR and our partners will advocate for replacement in the 2022 legislative session. (Join the River Guardians to advocate for this and other important issues.)

At FMR, we believe that everyone deserves clean, safe drinking water.

Unfortunately, though lead was banned for plumbing in 1986, existing lead pipes remain a threat in Minnesota. The most effective way to limit toxic lead exposure in drinking water is to remove lead service lines and pipes connecting a home or building to the public water main. (Here's a guide on how to check the material of your home's service line.)

The Minnesota Department of Health estimates it will cost as much as $350 million to replace all lead service lines statewide fully. Nationwide, the estimated cost is $45 billion, as lead service lines are not uncommon.  

That’s a big expense, which is why FMR is working with our partners to advance three emerging opportunities to fund lead service line replacement.

American Rescue Plan

In Minnesota, FMR was one of 13 organizations that asked Gov. Tim Walz to recommend lawmakers allocate $15 million in American Rescue Plan COVID relief funds to ramp up lead service line inventory and replacement. Lawmakers will make a final decision during the 2022 legislative session. Securing these funds will be a priority for FMR and our conservation allies during the upcoming legislative session.

Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act

In Washington, D.C., the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (H.R. 3684) passed the House with a 228-206 vote after clearing the Senate in August. The $1.2 trillion funding package bill will provide $15 billion in funds for lead service line replacement nationwide when signed into law.

Build Back Better Act

Also, in Washington, D.C, recent drafts of a slimmed-down (and still evolving) $1.75 trillion Build Back Better Act (H.R. 5376) in the U.S. House of Representatives include additional funding for disadvantaged communities to replace lead service lines, acquire lead filters for schools and daycares, and replace drinking water fountains in schools. It also includes funds for replacing lead service lines in rural communities.

Together, Minnesota’s share of these three pools of federal funding, along with any additional funds the state provides from an anticipated state budget surplus, could allow the replacement of most of the lead service lines in our state.

Health and environmental equity

This approach is more than just updating vital infrastructure and protecting public health. It represents important public health and environmental justice opportunity.

It's no surprise that economically disadvantaged communities and communities of color face higher risks from lead service lines. And these communities may often lack the resources necessary to replace lead service lines.

The EPA estimates an average cost of $4,700, ranging from $1,200 to $12,300 per line, putting full lead service line replacement out of reach for many low-income households. This raises clear health equity and environmental justice concerns.

Clean, safe drinking water shouldn’t depend on your zip code. FMR and our conservation allies in Minnesota will continue to advocate for centering equity and justice goals in the state's long-overdue approach to finally getting the lead out of our drinking water.

A once-in-a-generation opportunity

Over the coming months, we’ll have the opportunity to secure Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act funds, American Rescue Plan funds, state budget dollars and (possibly) Build Back Better Act funds for this important work. This once-in-a-generation opportunity to finally get rid of Minnesota's lead service lines.

We'll soon call on FMR’s River Guardians — our active base of advocates — to ask our leaders to make sure that these funds are invested in a way that helps address persistent health and justice concerns.

Sign up to become a River Guardian and make your voice heard. River Guardians are also invited to special events, including happy hours, to learn more about important legislative and metro river corridor issues.

Keep up to date

We write regular updates about key environment and water quality issues on our Water and Legislative Updates blog and share them on social media (Facebook and Twitter) and in our twice-monthly e-newsletter, Mississippi Messages.