Ridding the System of Lead

Saint Paul’s proactive approach maximizes opportunity and speeds up lead pipe replacement

Ridding the System of Lead

A St. Paul Regional Water Services crew member exposes a lead water line in the basement of a house so it can be replaced with copper. (Photography by Caroline Yang.)

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“Get the lead out” is an idiomatic expression meaning to hurry or speed up the pace of work. The expression applies doubly to St. Paul Regional Water Services, which is quickening the pace of its efforts to rid the system of lead pipes.

“When I joined this organization,” says Patrick Shea, general manager of the drinking water utility, “I was looking at the plan we had for ridding the system of lead pipe. It would have taken until 2054 to complete. The St. Paul Board of Water Commissioners, my staff and I believed that was not aggressive enough.”

The consequence of this professional impatience is a 10-year plan to be fully implemented in 2023 that will eliminate all lead water service lines in the utility’s service area at no cost to property owners. A pilot program will be offered later this year to customers living in areas where water main construction and other improvement projects are occurring.

This is an ambitious project because the regional water utility is not a small one. It serves 446,000 customers in more than a dozen communities, with 1,100 miles of water mains connected to 95,000 service lines. And, yes, some of those lines are lead — 26,000 of them, to be exact.

It’s not as though the utility has ignored the problem. Over the last 25 years, Shea says, it has “quite diligently” worked to replace lead piping located on public property, spending $2 million to $3 million per year to do so. As awareness of the health hazards associated with lead water pipes increased, the efforts to eradicate the threat continued.

Since the late 1990s, the city has treated all its water in a way that helps prevent the lead from contaminating water flowing through pipes. Addition of lime, sodium hydroxide and chlorine inhibits pipe corrosion, which helps keep the lead from leaching into the water.

Water commissioners decided now was the time to go “above and beyond” what the utility needed to do to be compliant with the federal Safe Drinking Water standards. To that end, it took advantage of the $240 billion American Rescue Plan that Congress funded in response to the pandemic, which included $130 billion for local governments for such expenditures as water infrastructure.

The city of St. Paul, which is the utility’s largest retail customer, qualified for $167 million in American Rescue Plan funds and committed $14.5 million of it for replacing lead pipes on private property. That is important because the utility is precluded from spending revenue collected from utility customers on private property.

Those funds will be augmented by money from a second federal source, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, for which Congress allocated $550 billion. From that, Minnesota state agencies will receive $43 million a year for the next five years, much of it coming as grants.

Combined with revenue generated by the utility from its customers, the regional organization will tackle the lead pipe issue to the tune of $25 million a year for the next 10 years, two-thirds of the funds targeting pipe on private property. The mix of monies is necessary because the system’s connections vary. Of the 26,000 lead connections, some 17,000 run from the house to the property line, the other 9,000 running all the way to the water main.

Plan of attack

St. Paul Regional Water Services is not a department of the city of St. Paul but works closely with it. While the utility is self-

supporting, drawing no funds from tax revenue, city council appoints the utility’s board members and otherwise ensures that the utility is working in the city’s interests. Some utility staff — legal, financial, human resources — work independent of the general manager.

But the bulk of the utility’s 250 employees answer to the board and general manager. About 100 are maintenance and construction personnel and Shea says they are extremely busy with the steady upgrade and repair of infrastructure. Some $20 million to $25 million a year is invested in rebuilding and revamping the water distribution system.

When the lead pipe replacement program is fully in effect, some of those 100 employees will be shifted to it, with an additional 10 people expected to be hired. “We’re looking at about a 50-50 split between water staff and contracted help doing the work,” says Shea. The split is by design. “We want our own staff to have experience doing this work and are creating a jobs plan to employ St. Paul residents. That way, we will have some cost control and gain knowledge as well.”

An interactive map on the utility’s website lets customers see if their water arrives through lead pipe. Most of the targeted pipe is 5/8-inch up to 1 inch in diameter. It will be replaced by 1-inch pipe. The map shows some neighborhoods rife with lead pipe, others lead pipe-free. The utility is still working out how to proceed from neighborhood to neighborhood.

“A very, very high percentage of the lead pipe is in St. Paul itself, and that is really spread out all over the city,” Shea says. “It really is hard to identify a section or quadrant of the city where there is a concentration of the pipe. Some of the suburbs have a little more lead pipe than do others.”

If a property owner can’t wait for the work to reach his or her piece of property, the person can opt to personally contract the work. “Our program is voluntary and free within designated project areas,” Shea says. “If someone out of the project area wants to get the work done using a private contractor, that’s an option. By early 2023, we hope to have created a draft project zones map and schedule, and property owners can look at that and make their judgment.”

Due to Minnesota winters, the work will be seasonal, with crews working from April through late November, the general manager says. “Once snow is on the ground or frost in the ground, it is hard working outside and you can do a lot more damage digging. It just isn’t cost-effective and controlling cost is a key component of the program.”

Strong supply

St. Paul is rich in water resources. Its primary water source is the Mississippi River. The utility draws from the river upstream from the Twin Cities with the diverted water flowing into and through a string of lakes. The sourced water that finally reaches the utility’s water treatment plant is two-thirds river water and one-third watershed from the lakes. The water is treated and oxygenated while in the lakes.

“The supply side here is amazing,” Shea says. In emergencies, the utility can also draw up to 50 mgd from its deep backup wells. The last significant draw was about 40 years ago when the area was in the midst of a drought.

The 51-year-old general manager has been in his position for three years after 25 years doing similar work in St. Cloud, Minnesota. The utility recently has experienced some retirements, so in the next few months, Shea will have five new executive team members working with him. “We’re all working together to get up to speed.”

The organization is operating smoothly, in any event, juggling some major capital projects at the same time the lead-free program is about to be launched. Shea says there may be a lesson in the lead pipe initiative for other water systems.

“I think the big lesson is that we are not waiting for an EPA decree or a state-agency mandate. We’re being proactive. I am amazed at the capacity of teams to work together and get the work done. That’s the thing: You need a champion and a willingness to think outside the box. We found that champion in the board of water commissioners.” 


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