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One Perspective on Strategy to Improve Water Infrastructure


Mention “lead” these days and Flint, Michigan and its contaminated water supply is probably the first thing that comes to mind. 

But the crisis spotlights issues facing much of the nation.

Aging water pipes and laterals are in desperate need of replacement.  Last week Lynn Broaddus, nonresident senior fellow with the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, wrote that there are strategies to improve the country’s water infrastructure.

While cities are required to monitor lead levels, those numbers may not be an exact reflection of levels detected in individual homes.

"(Residents) want to know, does my house have a lead problem and because it’s so cumbersome to test for lead, and because the lead levels can fluctuate even within the time of day or depending on what’s going on in the neighborhood, it’s really hard to get a handle on that," says Broaddus.

Lead levels can fluctuate due to old water fixtures and even the rate of movement of water through your house.

Broaddus explains that when water leaves a treatment plant there is not lead in it, but contamination can occur when it hits the lead pipes between the public main on the street leading into the house.


Credit City of Milwaukee
City of Milwaukee

Many utilities around the country add orthophosphate to the water to react to the lead and create a sealant in the pipe according to Broaddus.

"As long as that sealant is in place, you really shouldn't be having a problem," she says. "But when that sealant is disturbed either by a change in pH on the water that corrodes it, or by somebody cutting the pipe for construction purposes, or something else that might really rattle that pipe...that can dislodge some of the lead."

Broaddus suggests that one key strategy to improving water infrastructure is increased transparency on water data that is already collected. However in order to do that all cities need to actively collect more information on water quality and make it easier to understand.

Credit S Bence
Lynn Broaddus

"I think one of the main drivers of these changes to the information that we get about our public infrastructure is going to be around public demand," she says.

Currently there is strong public activism on the clean water side (sewage treatment, water advocacy of rivers, etc.), but the public push for information is lacking in the public safety valve concerning drinking water - partially due to the expenses of a never-ending issue that requires time and money.

"One of the reasons why we're in this situation is that utilities and municipalities have been reluctant to raise their rates because they get push back (and political pushback) when they do that," Broaddus explains. "The fact of the matter is if we want clean water, if we want healthy water, and we want our utilities to be able to do the work that is being asked of them we're going to have to raise our rates - and it's not just here, it's around the country."

A city can make efforts to replace their water mains, but if the resident fixes their own water line it has to be done at the same time - making for a logistical nightmare, Broaddus admits. She recommends looking for a lead filter in the meantime, "especially if you have children in your home," Broaddus adds.

Milwaukee Water Works provides  lead awareness information.

Audrey Nowakowski hosts and produces Lake Effect. She joined WUWM in 2014.
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.