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Colorado receives 32.8 million to replace decades-old lead pipes and improve drinking water systems

A worker with Denver Water prepares to pass a new copper water service line from a residential water meter to the water main June 17, 2021, in Denver. The Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022, approved a nearly $700 million plan to remove all lead water pipes in the Denver region. (AP Photo/Brittany Peterson, File)
Brittany Peterson/AP
A worker with Denver Water prepares to pass a new copper water service line from a residential water meter to the water main June 17, 2021, in Denver. The Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022, approved a nearly $700 million plan to remove all lead water pipes in the Denver region. (AP Photo/Brittany Peterson, File)

Utility companies, contractors, construction crews, plumbers and homeowners are working together to map the locations of every lead water service line in Colorado in an effort to help ensure the safety of the state’s approximately 900 community drinking water systems.

The maps should be delivered to the state health department by mid-October, creating a database of pipes, which connect the main water line to the household, that must be removed in the next 10 to 15 years.

The mapping is part of a nationwide effort to keep drinking water free of lead contamination, which can cause serious health issues including irreversible brain damage in children.

Not all communities in Colorado have lead service lines, said Ron Falco, safe drinking water program manager for the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment.

“In fact, we’re expecting the majority of our public drinking water systems in Colorado to be able to report to us that they do not have any lead service lines,” he said. “That can be because lead service lines were never used in that community or because they’re a newer community built after the lead ban went into effect in 1986. That’s good news from a health perspective and it’ll allow us to focus our lead service line removal efforts on a smaller number of systems.”

Lead was once commonly used to build water service lines in communities because it was cheap and flexible. But Congress banned the heavy metal from being used to build water pipes in the late 1980s after people realized corrosion can cause the chemical to seep into drinking water and cause health issues such as increased blood pressure, heart disease, decreased kidney function and cancer in adults.

Now, the federal government is providing funding to states to help remove and replace lead pipes with safer materials.

The most common sources of lead in drinking water are lead pipes and brass or bronze faucets and fixtures.

On May 2, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced its plans to provide $32.8 million to Colorado to help the state identify and replace lead pipes.

The lead removal effort is in line with President Joe Biden’s Investing in America agenda, which aims to advance environmental justice and generate economic opportunities.

Biden has promised to replace every lead pipe in America to protect children and families.

The federal funds helping states to replace lead pipes come from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which provided more than $50 billion to the EPA to help improve America’s drinking water, wastewater and stormwater infrastructure.

Lead was once commonly used to build water service lines in communities because it was cheap and flexible but corrosion and high levels of it can cause serious health problems. (Provided by Denver Water)

This is the third year Colorado and other states have received funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. The funding will be made available for at least two more years.

The $50 billion will be distributed to states that apply for it through the EPA’s Drinking Water State Revolving Fund program.

To qualify for a grant from the $50 billion fund, public water systems must complete planning, design and construction documents that meet the state revolving fund’s requirements. It typically takes about a year for companies or governments that provide water to complete the application process and receive funding.

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law mandates that 49% of the money granted to the state revolving fund must be provided as grants and forgivable loans to areas overburdened by pollution that have been underinvested in for too long, such as communities of color and neighborhoods with many low income families, according to a news release from the EPA.

The EPA estimates there are 9 million lead services lines across the country, according to a recent assessment.

The agency is releasing a new memorandum that clarifies how states can use funding to most effectively reduce exposure to lead in drinking water and the agency has also developed new outreach documents to help water systems educate their customers on drinking water issues, health impacts of lead exposure and how residents can help identify potential lead service lines in their homes.

“No parent in America should have to worry about the water their kids drink,” said U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, a Democrat. “This investment from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is an important step forward to help communities across Colorado replace harmful lead pipes without placing additional financial burdens on homeowners and small businesses. Communities in every corner of the country should have access to clean drinking water.”

Replacing lead service lines to improve public health

In 1991, the Environmental Protection Agency published a regulation to control lead and copper in drinking water.

The rule has been revised several times, including in 2007 to enhance public education about the rule and ensure people received timely and useful information to help them limit their exposure to lead in drinking water, and again in 2021, to better protect children at schools and child care facilities.

In October, around the same time that Colorado water systems are to complete their lead service line inventories, state public health leaders expect the EPA to improve the lead and copper rule by requiring that most lead service lines be replaced nationwide within the next 10 to 15 years, Falco said.

“It’s hard to predict what the exact makeup of those communities will be,” he said. “Primarily, we’re going to see pipes replaced in older areas of town or older communities altogether. This funding coming now will really help support those lead service line removal projects.”

Lead was banned in Colorado in January 1988, so state leaders don’t expect homes and communities built after that year to have lead service lines, Falco said. “In fact, in Colorado, we see hardly any lead service lines built after the mid-1950s.”

Most lead service lines are in Denver, health officials say

State public health department leaders estimate there are up to 111,900 lead service lines in Colorado, with about 64,000 to 84,000 of them located in Denver, the largest water system in the state.

Since Denver Water launched its lead reduction program in 2020, it has replaced more than 25,000 lead service lines in the county, said Alexis Woodrow, lead reduction program manager for Denver Water.

Denver Water is the only water system in Colorado required by the EPA to replace lead service lines.

In 2012, Denver’s water had higher levels of lead in it than the Environmental Protection Agency allowed. Soon after, Denver Water was then required to evaluate how it treats water and was required to distribute public education materials to people in the county about the health risks of lead in drinking water. After years of research and study, and following approval from the EPA, Denver Water initiated its lead service line replacement program in 2020.

In 2022, Denver Water received $76 million from the State Revolving Fund Program to help it more swiftly conduct its 15-year lead reduction program. The $76 million must be spent by the fall of 2025.

Denver Water has focused on replacing lead pipes in neighborhoods with low incomes, many children younger than age 6 and where plenty of homes were built before 1951.

The goal is to offer a public health benefit to Denverites who need it most, Woodrow said.

When the program launched in 2020, Denver Water sent notifications to people in Denver with known or suspected lead service lines and mailed water pitcher filters to those homes with information about the pipe removal process.

On average, it takes about four to eight hours to replace a lead service line. And, on average, contractors replace four to five lead service lines per day, per crew, Woodrow said.

“They move pretty quickly down the block,” she said. “But some blocks with older homes can have 25 to 30 lead service lines.”

Matt Ocepeck moved into his house in the Hilltop neighborhood in Denver in November 2021. By then, he knew Denver had plans to remove lead service lines across the county.

Denver Water workers replace a lead service line. (Provided by Denver Water)
Denver Water workers replace a lead service line. (Provided by Denver Water)

He received a notification from Denver Water in late January letting him know his home, built in 1953, had a lead service line and that the water utility had plans to remove it. Within two months, the service line was replaced by Denver Water, he said.

“I’m pretty happy with the whole process. I had a good experience with it,” Ocepeck said. “As an adult male, I was not concerned about a small amount of lead for me. But I have an 8-month-old baby right now and I was more concerned about that.”

Before the service line replacement, tests showed the water in his home had low levels of lead in it, he said.

Still, workers would have charged $10,000 to $13,000 to replace the service line, according to quotes he found online, he said. “I’m relieved to have that off my mind now.”

Any amount of lead in water is considered unsafe, Denver Water’s Woodrow said.

“If you look at a lead service line compared to other sources of lead in household plumbing, the lead service line is the largest contributor to lead in drinking water, and so by replacing that lead service line, you’re removing that potential risk of lead getting into your water,” she said. “If we know lead is not good for human health and we can replace the largest contributor to lead in drinking water, it’s a good overall public health benefit.”

MORE: To learn more about how federal financial investments from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law are helping communities across the country, visit the Environmental Protection Agency’s investing in America’s water infrastructure story map.