Waco to seek up to $20 million loan to eradicate lead pipes


The city of Waco will seek loan funding that could help property owners protect themselves against toxic lead in drinking water caused by lead pipes.

The Waco City Council was set Dec. 19 to approve a loan application for $15.9 million through the Texas Water Development Board’s Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, but the item was pulled from the agenda. City Manager Bradley Ford said the city could potentially receive additional funding from the loan program up to $20 million.

The loan would assist with removing and replacing lead service lines on both the city and customer’s side of the water meter. An item will come back to city council on Jan. 16, with a Jan. 29 application deadline.

“The idea is to get any lead out of the entire system, and that’s everything,” water utility spokesperson Jessica Emmett Sellers said.

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Lead is known to cause brain damage and developmental problems in children when ingested, and its use in plumbing and paint has been outlawed for decades.

It’s unclear so far how the money would be distributed or how many households would benefit from the funding, though property owner eligibility for loan funding could depend on some of the same standards that exist for other citywide assistance programs offering home rehabilitation funds, Sellers said. The housing and community development department uses federal funds to assist those at or below 80% of the area median income with home rehabilitation, including water line replacement and lead paint remediation.

“Some people already qualify for those kinds of programs through the housing department, so that’s where we’ve been sending them so far,” Sellers said. “And then this gives us a little bit extra money and hopefully will cover potentially more people than those programs were already covering.”

The Environmental Protection Agency originally published its Lead and Copper Rule in 1991 to regulate the metals in drinking water. The most recent revision to the rule requires water systems to develop a publicly available service line inventory, identifying lead pipes, galvanized pipes requiring replacement and other types, by October 2024.

The city is currently in the process of inspecting each of its more than 50,000 water meters to identify the type of service lines leading to the water main and to each house. Anything from the meter to the house and indoor plumbing is the owner’s responsibility, with total replacements typically costing some $5,000 or more, Sellers said.

The city of Waco is about a quarter of the way through a mission to track down any remaining lead water lines. City utility crews will open up the water meter, vacuum out the debris and determine the material of the pipe in a process that takes about 5 to 10 minutes, a city official said.

“Public safety is the highest priority obviously, so when you’re talking about the average replacement is going to be in the $5,000 range, not everybody has $5,000 lying around,” she said.

So far only one lead service line has been found on the customer’s side, after 75% of the meters have been checked. Lead pipes throughout the city for the most part have been eradicated, especially in older parts of the city, as they are replaced during maintenance and line breaks, Sellers said.

“We don’t dig holes just to dig holes,” she said. “So when something breaks that’s when we fix it. … Even before the EPA mandated it, any time we found lead in the system we replaced it.”

She said the remaining meters to be checked lie in the China Spring area, but since many of those houses were built after Congress banned the use of lead pipes in 1986 there is less of a chance of finding them.

The next step will be to go back to identify galvanized pipes that have ever been connected to a lead pipe. Galvanized pipes are susceptible to corrosion and could form lead deposits if they’ve ever been downstream of a lead pipe, offering another source of potential lead in water.

The loan would also cover the replacement of galvanized pipes, which are more common than lead.

“What’s going on right now is identification and public education,” Sellers said. “So if we find a lead service line at your house we go to you and say, ‘We found a lead service line, here’s what you should do,’ because there are ways, even if you have a lead service line at your house, to avoid consuming any water that potentially has lead in it with filters and pipe flushing.”

The EPA in November proposed another revision to the rule that would require providers to replace all lead service lines within 10 years. Though thought to be a potentially massive undertaking for smaller systems, replacing the lines as they’re found is an initiative the city has taken before it’s mandated, Sellers said.

The proposed rule would also lower the lead action level, the level of detectable lead that would require mediation, from 15 micrograms per liter to 10 micrograms, and require tap water sampling in places with known lead lines.

Due to its repeated acceptable testing levels, the city been put on a reduced testing schedule, Sellers said. However, a change to the EPA rule would require different kinds of testing to ensure the detectable lead is still below the decreased action level.

If lead is detected above the acceptable level because a homeowner has lead pipes in his or her house, the city would have to warn them of the dangers of lead yearly and provide them with options for a replacement.

The improvements to the rule are currently in a public comment period, with a virtual public hearing set for Jan. 16.


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