Water executive tells cities to “get creative” when it comes to replacing lead service lines

Water executive tells cities to “get creative” when it comes to replacing lead service lines
May 13, 2022 Gary Wilson, Great Lakes Now

Lynn Broaddus has little patience for cities who focus on the reasons why they can’t replace lead service lines.

She understands that finances are a big part of the problem but says too often cities focus on the barriers, instead of what’s possible.

Broaddus is the recent past-president and now a trustee with the international group Water Environment Federation, a non-profit focused on increasing the awareness of the impact and value of water.

Previously, she was executive director of the non-profit Milwaukee Riverkeeper. Then at the Johnson Foundation, she led a program that convened executives from different professions to discuss sustainability and resiliency issues.

Broaddus said she was drawn to work on water issues when she realized that “water belongs to everybody.”

Great Lakes Now’s Gary Wilson recently talked with Broaddus about how disinvestment impacts cities with limited financial resources. She described what can happen when communities take a positive approach to replacing lead service lines and innovative ways cities and states can make water more affordable.

Finally, Broaddus talked about the need to go “upstream” to deal with issues like PFAS and agricultural pollution that are threats to human health and a drain on municipalities’ financial resources.

The interview was conducted via email and on the phone. It was recorded, transcribed and edited for length and clarity.

Great Lakes Now: In 2014, a water crisis began to brew in Flint as citizens complained about discolored and foul-smelling drinking water. It morphed over time to be a “lead in the water” crisis that hit the national spotlight. Decades of disinvestment and de-industrialization along with neglect by elected officials were the culprits. It was followed by a similar crisis in 2021 in Benton Harbor, Michigan. Have we as a region sufficiently learned the lessons of Flint? Or are future crises in the making?

Lynn Broaddus: Both Flint and Benton Harbor are very challenging circumstances. The legacy of lead service lines is concerning in any community, but they are particularly troublesome in communities with declining populations and an insufficient rate-base to cover the costs of running a professional water treatment system. Those are the big problems, the ticking time bombs.

I’m not sure how many communities have lurking lead service line problems, but the larger issue of underfunded and understaffed water supply and wastewater utilities is of real concern, particularly in communities with declining populations and below-average incomes.

GLN: Should the state agencies responsible for oversight be doing more to identify and support communities with underfunded and understaffed systems before they get to a crisis point? Michigan’s response to Benton Harbor was reactive, and even then the state had to be prompted by activist groups.

LB: States do have a responsibility. Particularly they have a responsibility if you go upstream from the actual problem to the financial security of the utility. That’s where we can get sustainable traction. Some states like Wisconsin have a mechanism in place that oversees the finances of the public utilities that help to prevent them from getting into these dire situations.

GLN: What’s the status of suburban water systems that have largely been out of the spotlight? Have they been adequately funded, or is it a matter of time before we see them with Flint-like issues? Elgin, Illinois for example is scrambling to find funding to replace 13,000 lead service lines at a cost of $135 million.

LB: I don’t mean to be cagey, but the answer to that sort of depends. It depends on city finances certainly, but it also depends greatly on the attitudes of leaders. Do leaders see all the reasons why they can’t tackle the problem, focusing on the barriers? Or do they view it as “this is a big deal, and I’m going to figure out a way to make it happen?”

We have a number of cities in the Great Lakes region that have approached it with the latter attitude. Madison and Lansing are the poster children for this. They made the decision to tackle this years ago in the early 2000s before most of us were paying attention. And they got it done.

More recently, Buffalo, which has about two-thirds the median income of Elgin and a declining population, has figured this out. It all comes down to leadership getting creative about how to pay for it. Instead of seeing barriers, they found solutions. I should note that these cities didn’t copyright their solutions – any city in the Great Lakes region, big or small, is welcome to look at Buffalo or Madison or Lansing and use their template.

GLN: President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill is law, and it contains $55 billion for water. The big dollar amounts grab the headlines, but what are the barriers to successful implementation as the funding moves through the federal and state bureaucracies?

LB: Fifty-five billion dollars certainly is a lot in absolute terms, but the need is so much greater. There is no shortage of critical projects to put it toward.

In terms of barriers, there are the usual ones: larger cities, ones that have strong staff and consulting partners are going to be first in line to get this money. Smaller or struggling communities have challenges pulling together the proposals and jumping through the hoops that come with federal funds.

This time around, however, Congress specifically created set-asides for small or disadvantaged communities within many of the loan and grant programs. For some of the programs, they’ve also reduced or eliminated requirements for matching funds and have increased the proportion that is an outright grant rather than a low-interest loan. All of these steps should create breathing room for communities.

This time, there’s a unique concern that I’m hearing about from people across the country. Because of the post-pandemic supply chain challenges and shortages of workers of all kinds – from engineers and planners who can do these designs, to folks who are on the ground doing the work, not to mention state employees who manage the program – combined with this infusion of funds, there’s an expectation of delays and cost overruns which could create headaches all the way around.

Maybe this is a great place to put in a plug for working in water. For those in your audience who are starting out their career or who may be looking for a change, water – that includes stormwater, water delivery and wastewater – is a fantastic career path to think about. Communities need you!

GLN: Water affordability is an issue not addressed by the Biden administration or by that of Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. A recent study led by University of Michigan researchers found that the inability of people to pay water and sewage bills is widespread across the state. How did we get to the point that a necessity for life is unaffordable for many in a region with abundant water? What is the remedy?

LB: Sometimes we need to take a step back and think. Certainly, there has been a lot of thought put into affordability, how to structure rates to protect those least able to pay, where to get the federal government to help level the playing field.

In recent years with the U.S. EPA along with national organizations like the Water Environment Federation and the American Water Works Association, as well as NGOs working in the space, a lot of progress has been made. That’s important, and we must continue to do that.

But we also need to look at the costs that underlie those rates. Take for instance a water intake and distribution plant. We treat 100% of our water to drinking water standards, and then flush half of it down the toilet, or use it to fight fires and cool down office buildings. These are important functions, but we don’t need the super fancy, high quality water for these needs. Some communities are re-thinking their distribution model so that the right water is being provided for the right need.

What else can we do to control costs? Some communities have found that rental housing often has horribly inefficient, dysfunctional fixtures. It may not be the water rates that are the problem, but that people are forced to use more water than they actually need. Whose responsibility is it, where is the incentive to make sure that people have fixtures that don’t leak, toilets that don’t run and water that gets hot quickly?

And if we can step back a bit further, let’s think about the money that communities spend to remove toxins from their water supply. Wouldn’t it be cheaper to keep the toxins out in the first place?

The poster child for this is those nasty blue-green algae blooms that are occurring on the Great Lakes and other water bodies with increasing frequency. This is a problem made infamous by Toledo’s water crisis in 2014, but we’re seeing it everywhere, even on Lake Superior, and every year. Toledo, like cities across the region, is forced to spend millions of dollars to remove this toxin from its drinking water. Yes, it works, but it’s expensive and it only fixes a symptom of the problem rather than the root cause. We’re still left with dead fish, lakes you can’t even touch – much less swim in – and horrible odors that cause their own raft of health challenges.

What if, instead of spending money treating the symptom, we went after the root cause?

The science is clear. These toxins are the result of over-fertilized agricultural fields upstream that are causing an over-fertilized Great Lakes, which, especially when the water warms up, is a great way to grow poisonous algae.

When a company’s pipeline breaks and contaminates the river, the company is expected to clean it up to their best ability and pay fines, as appropriate. That’s the public’s water they are contaminating. But when farmers pollute, it’s the downstream people that pay. Why aren’t we investing in soil health and agricultural systems that use minimal amounts of mineral fertilizer? Especially given that every farmer I’ve ever heard of who has made the transition to regenerative agriculture talks about how much more money they are making, they don’t need to borrow as much each year, and their personal health has improved.

In other words, if we want affordable water we need to keep it clean in the first place. It’s that simple.

GLN: PFAS is widespread in Michigan and other parts of the Great Lakes region. A Michigan State University researcher recently told Great Lakes Now that it doesn’t take much PFAS to contaminate water and research on it is in the early stages. What’s your advice to water managers on PFAS?

LB: In some ways, this is analogous to the toxic algae situation. First, we must go upstream to those who are bringing PFAS into our watersheds, into our communities and do what we can to stop it at the source before it gets into our drinking water or our bodies.

We also need to make sure that the public understands how product choices drive demand – most people don’t realize that PFAS is in many products they use every day, like dental floss, nail polish, waterproof clothing, stain repellents, pizza boxes, pre-packaged food containers. Each of these has alternatives, but people need to know about them and make choices to eliminate their personal exposure.

Secondly, we must look for technologies that can – without exacerbating other problems like energy demand – break down these contaminants. This is an area of active research, but there are emerging wastewater treatment technologies – some of which are exciting because they also can be a source of renewable energy – that can do the job.

But of course, everything is easier if we do everything we can to prevent the problem in the first place.

Catch more news at Great Lakes Now: 

PFAS is a widespread problem. The solution needs to come from widespread sources

Substantive change will require a ‘massive culture shift’ in federal, state and local agencies

Featured image: Lynn Broaddus (Photo courtesy of Water Environment Federation)


Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *