Damakant Jayshi

City leaders on Tuesday approved a partnership between the city of Wausau, the water commission and community infrastructure partners to replace thousands of lead service lines over a five-year span beginning next year.

The lead replacement program is expected to cost about $80 million, with each of the 8,000 lines reflecting a $10,000 cost. The city is directly responsible for 2,500 public side LSL replacements, which according to the national average will amount to a $25 million price tag.

Wausau is currently looking to replace 500 LSLs in 2024, compared to the prior replacement average of 30-50 LSLs per year, a huge jump in number of the lines targeted to be replaced.

According to Environmental Protection Agency figures, there are still an estimated 9.2 million lead service lines in cities and towns across the country, many of which are in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color.While the federal government wants all of these lead pipes that supply drinking water to homes replaced in 10 years, Wausau Mayor Katie Rosenberg has pursued an ambitious plan to replace the lines in half that time.

In October, Gov. Tony Evers announced funding for PFAS and lead service line replacement in 106 communities across Wisconsin, including Wausau. The city will receive $17 million, with $5.8 million for lead service line replacement. Of this, more than $3.6 million will be principal forgiveness and the rest coming through a loan with a 0.25 percent interest rate. 

Rosenberg told the City Council members she is excited that Wausau is taking a lead, an example other communities are trying to follow.

“I can’t emphasize enough that this is historic funding we are getting access to and it’s also history that we are making here,” Rosenberg said. “I have talked to EPA now more than I ever imagined.”

Rosenberg told Wausau Pilot & Review in October that homeowners and businesses – the private side – may not be responsible for the cost, since the city would likely use Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funding for the efforts.

“Our understanding of BIL funding is that if we are using that funding source, the homeowner/property owner cannot be asked to pay for that replacement,” the mayor said at the time. Both the mayor and Public Works Director Eric Lindman said they were looking at other sources of funding for the LSL replacement.

The lead and galvanized lines have long been considered risky for domestic water consumption, and local governments have been replacing those older lines with copper or plastic options. The older lines are both on the public side and on private properties. The private portion of an LSL lies between the curb stop and the connection point inside a private property.

The agreement with the Community Infrastructure Partners will be on a year-by-year basis, with a review done at the end of each year and extended if performance is satisfactory. The agreement is set to expire in December 2029, unless both parties agree to extend under mutual agreement. The collaboration, termed community based public-private partnership, CBP3, was first announced in October.

While the city alders welcomed the agreement and supported it, they also expressed concerns given the scope and cost of the project.

Alder Gary Gisselman asked about the quality and expertise of CIP and whether they can employ local people for the work. Mayor Rosenberg said local involvement is part of key performance indicators in the partnership agreement. City Attorney Anne Jacobson, replying to Gisselman’s concern about CIP being from outside Wisconsin, said she will ensure the group is registered in the state before the contract is awarded.

Dist. 3 Alder Tom Kilian said he wanted open meetings and open records provisions attached to the agreement, which the city attorney and mayor said can be done. If the company does not agree, the matter will be brought back to City Council.

Lisa Rasmussen referred to the project as cutting edge, with Wausau taking the lead on funding. She urged her colleagues to trust the city’s legal team and the partner company, and approve the project.

Alder Diny asked about the cost break-up and how much of the tab would be picked up by the residents. Public Works Director pointed out that they are relying on loans.

The agreement was approved unanimously.