Even though two of the largest freshwater lakes in the world, Lake Michigan and Lake Superior, border Wisconsin, many of the state’s residents in formerly redlined communities still do not have easy access to clean and safe drinking water.
Wisconsin has the highest number of lead pipes per capita nationwide, making lead in drinking water one of Wisconsin’s most significant health issues. Bacteria, nitrates, PFAS, arsenic and radium have also recently come to light as water quality concerns there.
“You’re drinking good water through a lead-based straw,” said Richard Diaz, a Milwaukee native and Coalition on Lead Emergency chair.
Communities of color and low-income families in Wisconsin are disproportionately affected by lead poisoning, a 2016 report showed. According to the state’s Department of Natural Resources, some drinking water fixtures were manufactured with lead until less than three decades ago. Currently, about 176,000 homes and businesses still receive their water from pipes made of lead.
Replacing the pipes has been slow, mostly due to limited funding, but substantial financial assistance from the new Bipartisan Infrastructure Law could be a turning point for those communities.
Over the next five years, the EPA will direct a total of $700 million toward preventing floods, improving wastewater treatment, protecting vital waterways and providing access to reliable drinking water in Wisconsin. The money is part of the $50 billion that the legislation designated for water infrastructure improvements across the country.
“It’s a historic investment,” said Laura Rubin, director of the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition.
The state will use about half of these investments to forgive loans for water infrastructure projects in disadvantaged communities. How those funds are allocated is largely up to the state. Clean water advocates are working to ensure these funds reach more of Wisconsin’s overburdened communities.
The EPA directed $79 million from the program’s first fiscal year toward water infrastructure improvements in Wisconsin through two state revolving funds, which provide financing for wastewater and sewer infrastructure projects. Projects that are eligible to apply for funding include those for modernizing infrastructure, replacing lead service lines and increasing resilience to climate impacts.
“This is a major federal investment [that] will help local communities in Wisconsin replace dangerous lead service lines and address PFAS contaminants so that we can provide safe and clean drinking water to people across our state,” said U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin in a statement announcing the funds last month.
Across the country, the same households that struggle to make ends meet financially are generally at the greatest risk of lead exposure from drinking water, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Even the lowest blood lead levels can have irreversible effects on the developing brain and central nervous system.
According to a 2020 Wisconsin Infrastructure Report Card by the American Society of Civil Engineers, replacing the lead-tainted pipes has gone at a snail’s pace. Last year, a study found that the state has double the national rate of detectable lead levels in children’s blood.
“We’re in a drinking water infrastructure crisis,” said Rubin.
In Milwaukee, which sits on the intersection of three rivers, there are more than 65,000 lead service lines, accounting for more than 40 percent of all water lines in the city, according to Milwaukee Water Works.
The city largely relies on loans from state revolving funds to finance the replacement of its aging water mains and the connected lead service lines. The ability to replace the aging infrastructure is constrained by how much Milwaukee water ratepayers can afford to pay in increased water rates, said Brenda Coley, co-executive director of Milwaukee Water Commons.
The disproportionate impact of old water infrastructure on the health of communities of color is a result of the continued effects of redlining in Milwaukee, she added.
“We have to think about restorative justice,” said Coley. “We have this great opportunity, with these funds coming down from the federal government.”
Wisconsin’s $700 million from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law for water projects would be in addition to what the federal government already contributes to the Clean Water Fund and the Safe Drinking Water Loan Programs in the state. The first $79 million will supplement this fiscal year’s $43 million in regular funding for the two programs run by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. The state expects an additional $64 million for this fiscal year.
The EPA grants for state revolving funds are part of President Biden’s Justice40 initiative, which aims to ensure at least 40 percent of the benefits from certain federal programs flow to disadvantaged communities. Nearly half of Wisconsin’s new water infrastructure funds must be used to provide grants or forgivable loans to help disadvantaged communities invest in critical water infrastructure. However, what constitutes a disadvantaged community and how those funds are dispersed is largely up to the state.
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Milwaukee Water Commons and the Coalition on Lead Emergency successfully pushed to reform the state’s definition of “disadvantaged communities” that determine eligibility for principal forgiveness of the revolving fund loans.
The criteria has broadened. The improved methodology considers the prevalence and severity of poverty, unemployment rates, population decline, community size and median household income. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources also altered the criteria for prioritizing projects in low-income communities and those that remove lead service lines.
Diaz of the Coalition on Lead Emergency calls the funds a “down payment” on addressing the disproportionate burden communities of color face with outdated water systems. He highlighted that many of the communities disproportionately exposed to lead in drinking water are also those that live where lead is present in aging housing. Diaz is also the Midwest regional field organizer of BlueGreen Alliance, an organization that promotes a low-carbon economy.
“We know that you cannot necessarily eliminate our exposure to lead, but we can reduce it by changing these lead laterals,” said Coley. “Everyone deserves and must have clean water, and we look to our government to resolve this as a public health issue.”
Coley said the Milwaukee Water Commons plans to work with utility companies to educate them on how to engage with the state and have a say in how the funds are allocated equitably.
The state Department of Natural Resources has already seen an increase in interest to apply for the following fiscal year, said Casey Sweeney, policy analyst for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
“This is a very unique opportunity, something we have looked forward to for a very long time,” said Sweeney. “We look forward to focusing on that work and making this very impactful for all of our Wisconsin communities.”