Local officials should stomach the inevitable complaints and implement a program similar to Madison’s to replace lead pipes that connect homes to water mains.

Some property owners will argue such programs amount to “big brother” telling them what to do, but the benefits of reducing lead exposure, especially among children, should take priority. No amount of lead exposure is considered safe, and lead exposure standards are likely to become only more stringent over time.

Leaving these laterals in place might delay but won’t prevent a future reckoning, likely one at a much greater cost to taxpayers.

Many municipalities reporting lead problems say their water supply is clean until it reaches residences’ laterals—the stretch of pipe between the home and the middle of the street, where it attaches to a municipal water main. While doing other water utility work, cities will replace the laterals between the water main and curb—the public side—but they often don’t require lateral replacement between the curb and the home—the private side.

Madison is a notable exception. Its lead lateral replacement program requires private-side replacement and imposes large fines on owners who refuse. As a result, 5,600 private-side laterals have been replaced since 2000. The city picked up half the replacement costs up to $1,500 starting in 2107 and up to $1,000 before that.

To what extent governments should be responsible for paying for lateral replacements is an important question. Replacing a lateral isn’t cheap.

Some communities have more lead laterals than others, and so liability varies significantly from city to city.

Janesville is fortunate. Its water supply doesn’t encourage lead leaching, and regular lead testing hasn’t raised alarms. Janesville has relatively few lead laterals, even among housing stock built in the 1920s and 1930s. Only about 745 out of the city’s 24,400 private lateral connections are lead, according to Utility Director David Botts.

Nevertheless, there’s still a need to mandate private-side lateral replacement, in part because many lead laterals are located in Janesville’s poorer neighborhoods.

Grant funding has helped to replace about 100 private-side laterals, Botts said. But unless the city requires replacement, there’s no guarantee property owners will do it, even when offered grant funding. Rental property owners, in particular, have been slow to respond to the city’s offer to pay for lateral replacement with the grant funding, Botts said.

Within Rock County, the city of Edgerton appears to be the biggest challenge, with an estimated 25 percent of its 2,400 lateral connections believed to contain lead, according to City Administrator Ramona Flanigan. Recent tests have renewed concerns, and the city is investigating possible solutions.

Flanigan said lead lateral replacement is an “excellent public policy discussion to have.” But she’s careful not to pick a side in the debate over who should pay. “The solution is not a simple as saying the utility should pay for it because the utility is ratepayers, and ratepayers have an opinion about their rates,” she said.

The sooner Edgerton and other cities settle the question over who pays and how much, the better. Replacing lead laterals is costly, but eliminating them would give communities peace of mind, and that’s priceless.

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