What Can Milwaukee Learn From Madison's Lead Pipe Removal?

May 8, 2019

When the Lead and Copper Rule was first issued in 1991, it put federal limits on the acceptable amount of these metals found in drinking water. Cities started testing their water. Researchers experimented with chemicals that could inhibit the corrosion of pipes — the main source of contamination.

But for some cities, like Madison, Wis., that simply wasn’t enough.

"[The Lead and Copper Rule] has a fundamental flaw, and that is: it's over-simplistic. It doesn't acknowledge the multiple factors by which lead and copper leave piping materials and get into the drinking water," says Abigail Cantor, the president of Process Research Solutions, a consulting firm based in Madison that specializes in drinking water quality. 

"[The Lead and Copper Rule] has a fundamental flaw, and that is: it's over-simplistic."

After extensive testing, Cantor found that Madison’s water could not be fully controlled without removing its lead pipes. So in 2001, the city took an uncommon step: it removed the pipes. 

Nearly two decades later, Milwaukee still has lead pipes. But, why?

Cantor says the first step in removing lead from any water system is to remove lead service lines. That's easier said than done. There are political and economic obstacles to pipe removal. The Lead and Copper Rule also presents a challenge.

"It states that a utility has to alter the water with a chemical to control the lead, before removing any lead service lines. A chemical treatment must be used and tried and failed," Cantor explains. 

In the meantime, residents are potentially stuck with lead-contaminated water. Madison had to jump through some bureaucratic hoops to side-step the regulation. 

The city was also dealing with around 8,000 lead pipes. A paltry number compared to Milwaukee's lead service lines.

"Milwaukee has 77,000 lead service lines ... Removing and replacing lead service lines, it's similar to Madison, but just on a much larger scale."

"Milwaukee has 77,000 lead service lines ... Removing and replacing lead service lines, it's similar to Madison, but just on a much larger scale. It's going to take a lot longer to get to every building, and people need to have confidence in what they're drinking in the meantime," she says. 

Still, Cantor sees a path forward for Milwaukee. Most of her advice is for the city of Milwaukee Water Works, which she says needs to remove lead lines and flush water mains, among other things. But she says there's more that needs to be done. "You have to start there, but you can't stop there," she cautions. 

What Cantor Says You Can Do

  • Managers and Owners of Large Buildings: Routine cold and hot water pipe flushing, routine hot water tank blowdown, lower the time water stays in the plumbing/piping/tanks, and pay special attention to the cleaning of any treatment tanks like water softeners.
  • Residents: Don't drink stagnating water, don't drink discolored water or water with an unusual odor (outside of chlorine smell). Look to the water utility and other public groups for help with complete lead service line replacement.