Damakant Jayshi

The Wausau Water Works Commission on Tuesday approved the city’s participation in the White House-initiated lead service line replacement program.

The program, Lead Service Line Replacement Accelerators Community Initiative, is being spearheaded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Under the program, which is intended for underserved communities to remove lead pipes that carry drinking water, Wausau will receive technical assistance. Wisconsin is among four states participating in the initiative along with Connecticut, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

Mayor Katie Rosenberg, who had traveled to Washington, D.C. to participate in a Jan. 27 partnership event organized by the White House, said technical expertise will be available to Wausau because Gov. Tony Evers signed on to the program.

“That’s good news for us because we have also decided that’s what we are going to do,” she said while briefing the commission. “But we don’t know what that technical expertise looks like just yet.”

Public Works Director Eric Lindman said that the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has reached out to communities that are proactive in lead service line replacement “and we are one of them.”

Replying to Commissioner Jim Force’s question on whether there would be any financial impact on the city, Lindman said he was not aware of any. “This is all technical assistance funded by the EPA.”

The mayor emphasized the importance of communicating the plan to the community “in the language that people use” and said the city wants to use professional communicators to onboard the plan in neighborhoods “where they need a little extra support.”

Commissioner Force said the communications plan should have input from the community and stressed that the plan be developed in collaboration with residents. Force said prior communications from the city were not adequate, a comment he made last month, too.

The commission directed the public works director to present a communications plan at the April meeting, the timeline suggested by the public works director. By that time, Lindman said, he will have more details about the plan itself.

Pilot study on lead service line replacement deferred

The commission voted to endorse staff’s suggestion to shelve a proposed pilot study on a limited scale on the city’s Henrietta Street on lead service. This study was to involve about 40 houses on the street this year and was planned to move forward prior to funding being secured.

Citing time restrictions, DPW recommended dropping the pilot study, which the commission had approved last month. Initially, some commissioners wanted to postpone the launch of the lead service line pilot before securing funding but ultimately recommended moving forward and requesting that the Finance Committee allocate the money, possibly through ARPA funds.

Using a flat cost of $4,000 per site, the estimated overall cost was projected at $160,000. The timeline to replace all such lines in the city is 15 years. Now that pilot will not happen.

Commissioner Force expressed disappointment that the pilot study was being dropped, saying it would have provided information and input from the community while helping inform future decision-making.

Commissioner Robinson agreed with that, but said he was a little concerned given the workload amid a staff shortage. “We need to be careful that we don’t get unintended pushback,” he said. There has been mixed support in the community for the plan because of the costs involved.

Wausau City Council member Dawn Herbst, who sits on the Water Commission, also said the group should take time on the matter “instead of doing things haphazardly.”

Many cities across the U.S. are trying to replace lead pipes, with or without state or federal funding. Some have issued mandates to residents to replace their lines and have offered to meet at least part of the cost of replacement. Appleton, for example, enacted an ordinance in January last year mandating “all property owners replace their lead or galvanized service line within one year of written notification from the City.” 

The Wausau Water Commission also approved another related measure – requesting the Wisconsin PSC to approve the revenue rates for private side lead service line replacements. With prior approval, the PSC allows the use of user rates to fund up to 50% of the private side replacements.