Here's What Cities Confronting the Lead Water Crisis Can Do

A Changing Climate Means A Changing Society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project, Supported By The Kresge Foundation And The JPB Foundation, Is Committed To A Greener, Fairer Future.​ This Op-Ed Was Originally Published September 5, 2017 in Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service.  

Milwaukee has a serious problem with lead in our drinking water. Across the city, some 70,000 service lines are made of lead, contaminating the water we use to drink, cook and bathe. Lead is a potent neurotoxin, which can cause permanent brain damage and other severe health problems — especially for young children. In Milwaukee, more than one in 12 of our children under the age of 6 have elevated blood levels of lead

Despite these dangers, our public officials are not yet treating this as an urgent issue. The Common Council’s Water Quality Task Force made several sound recommendations in April, which the Council has yet to implement. Currently the Public Health and Safety Committee of the Common Council is considering a resolution relating to Health Department recommendations for avoiding lead exposure. Resolutions are important first steps, but here’s what the council must do:

Fix it. 

Only our city government can tackle the replacement of lead service lines. It’s a huge job, but not impossible: Madison got it done in just over a decade. Milwaukee is a bigger city with a bigger problem, but we should be able to replace all of our lead service lines within a generation. Right now in the best-case scenario, the city will complete the replacements in 50 years — so a middle-school student drinking contaminated water today could have to wait until she’s ready for Social Security for the problem to be solved. That is simply not acceptable.

Filter it.

While we wait for all of the lines to be replaced, the best way to protect our health is by filtering lead-tainted drinking water. Instead, the city recommends that affected residents “flush” their water lines by running water for 3–6 minutes, or “until cold” before using it. This strategy is wasteful, expensive, arbitrary and unlikely to work. We need an NSF 53-rated filter on every faucet of every home and apartment with a lead service line or internal lead piping and fixtures. Yet zero dollars have been requested in the 2018 budget for filters.

Face the facts.

The city must be fully transparent about its plans and timetables to tackle this problem. At the same time, city agencies must do a better job of telling residents how to protect our families from lead. We need a public health messaging campaign focused specifically on lead in drinking water. It needs to explain the risks, and show how to obtain, install and use water filters. Consistent messages must be shared across many platforms — including radio, television and social media. Outreach through community-based organizations and faith communities is key.

Lead in drinking water is a substantial and complex problem, but it can be solved. After all, Milwaukee aspires to be a global leader in managing water resources. The first step is to make sure our own water is safe to drink.