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Wauwatosa: One Of Many Wisconsin Communities Grappling With Lead In Water

Susan Bence
Filtering water to remove lead is a temporary measures. One Wauwatosa resident asks when the city is going to come up with solutions.

Just like Milwaukee, thousands of lead service lines deliver water from the main into Wauwatosa households. Wauwatosa's public works director David Simpson estimates nearly 10,000 of its 15,000 customers have lead pipes feeding water into their homes.

Simpson says Wauwatosa recently changed its policy surrounding pipes that break. “If we have a break on the city-owned lateral, we’ll go in and replace the entire city-owned side.” Before that, he says, city crews simply repaired the break.

Like water utility managers around the country, Simpson says he realized additional measures were necessary. “When we disrupt that lead lateral by doing some sort of construction, it does essentially, potentially elevate that lead in the water. So what we decided to do was to replace the entire city-side at that point."

Now when crews set to work, Wauwatosa offers households connected to the water line a pitcher designed to filter out lead and, Simpson says, “explain to them why it’s important to use it for 30 to 60 days. What we’re usually seeing is that within 30 to 45 days, the lead levels are going back to original levels. So we feel comfortable that if people are using that lead filter for that 60-day window.”

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If the homeowner’s side of the lead service line breaks or ruptures, he says, "we don’t have anything in place currently on the private side. So you would decide if it is important for you to patch or not to patch or to replace the whole thing."

Some homeowners are deciding to replace their side of the lead lateral.  Right now, a 7-block water main project is underway on Underwood and Woodland Avenues.  The water utility says about 50 households are located along the main, approximately 20 of which are replacing their side of the lead line as the city replaces its side.

Credit Michelle Maternowski
Pipes waiting for installation in Wauwatosa.

The public works director says the length of the pipe, and therefore, the cost for a resident to replace it can vary dramatically. “Someone’s lateral could be a short as a foot, could be as long as 60 feet or more. It really just depends the layout of the water main and where it’s located."

The City of Wauwatosa is exploring options to remove the lead threat that could be less expensive than removing the pipes -- for both homeowners and the city.

For instance, lining lead pipes rather than replacing them. “It’s a material similar to your plastic water bottles. You slide that in, it’s small and then you pump hot water through it and it expands and forms itself to that lead lateral, creating a barrier and no lead touching water any more,” Simpson says.

Last year, a contractor lined the pipe hooked up to one Wauwatosa home. Simpson considers it a successful pilot.

“We did some pre-lining testing of the homes water and we did some post-testing. So we did some sampling right after the lining went in, and then a week after and a month after,” he explains.

Credit Michelle Maternowski
Work being done in Wauwatosa.

Simpson can’t pin down a date when Wauwatosa will come up with a master plan for solving its lead lateral situation.

For now, “from the water utility side of things, we have just a frequently asked questions sheet that talks about lead that we offer to homeowners if they have questions,” Simpson says.

Melissa Weiss, director of administrative services for Wauwatosa, says its health department reports well under 1 percent of young children tested in Wauwatosa have elevated blood lead levels, and the percentage is dropping.

“In 2014 that number was 0.69, so over the past several years we have decreased by 50 percent,” Weiss explains.

In addition, she says the health department is developing a Community Health Improvement Plan of which lead is a component. “And so they will be working on a comprehensive lead communication to share with our community - what they can do. But that will be more than lead in water. It will also be lead in paint and other lead sources that we would think about here in Wauwatosa."

But while around two-thirds of Wauwatosa’s laterals are lead, it isn’t the only suburban community dealing with lead concerns.

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In fact, the vast majority of homes in Shorewood have lead laterals. The village offers a zero interest loan to encourage residents to replace their side of the lateral as the village replaces its pipes. So far, there haven’t been very many takers.

West Allis has 10,000 lead lines and has been replacing the private side on a voluntary basis for the last two years – 175 in 2017, with 305 slated for this year.

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Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.