Not Enough to Just Replace Lead Pipes


Mar 1, 2024

A clear glass cup under a water faucet with water flowing, photo by by sonmez/Getty Images

Photo by by sonmez/Getty Images

In recent years lead-contaminated drinking water has been experienced in Flint, Chicago, Denver, New York, Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Portland, Oregon. The latest water quality challenge is happening on St. Croix, one of the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Between October 2023 and January 2024, residents of St. Croix were directed to drink bottled water and then to boil their water to be sure it was safe after testing found elevated levels of lead and severe discoloration in parts of the water distribution system. President Biden approved an emergency declaration for St. Croix in November, which mobilized federal assistance for residents and local officials. This step helped to address and mitigate the immediate effects of the contamination by providing filters, testing, and bottled water. As of January 23, St. Croix's water advisory was lifted after tests showed reduced lead and copper levels.

While the lifting of the advisory is generally good news, it does not signal an end to the complex work facing the island to ensure safe and reliable drinking water. St. Croix faces longer-term challenges that extend beyond immediate impacts of the drinking water contamination. In addition to removing the lead from the drinking water supply—ideally by replacing all lead service lines—there are larger social impacts of the contamination that have to be addressed, and investments made to ensure the contamination does not recur.

When the water isn't safe—especially for vulnerable people like children, the elderly, the immune compromised—the shattered trust can take years to repair.

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Drawing on the experiences of other cities that have faced this challenge, there are three important lessons those responding to the disaster on St. Croix should keep in mind.

The first is that it is essential to regain the trust of residents in the drinking water system. Drinking water is a critical service provided by local governments, one that is central to residents' health and well-being. When the water isn't safe—especially for vulnerable people like children, the elderly, the immune compromised—the shattered trust can take years to repair.

Research has shown that a lack of trust in the drinking water system can lead people to rely unnecessarily on bottled water, paying orders of magnitude more for their drinking water. Bottled water reliance has also been linked to longer-term disengagement from decisionmaking about critical drinking water services. As federal and local officials work to address the water contamination on St. Croix, it is equally important work to rebuild trust by maintaining clear lines of communication with the public about the steps being taken and the reasons why they can trust the water is safe to drink again.

The second lesson is the importance of rebuilding technical and physical capacity in the local drinking water system following the immediate response to the contaminated water. This is likely to prove particularly challenging on St. Croix as the island is still recovering from the devastating effects of hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017.

Lead leaches into drinking water supplies from lead service lines. To control this, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets chemical treatment protocols to minimize corrosion. Typically, finding of elevated lead levels in drinking water triggers a reevaluation of these corrosion control measures by local water treatment plant operators. This might mean tweaking the chemical compositions or updating the timing of the treatment. Sometimes standing water in the pipes might have to be flushed out.

The immediate solution for St. Croix's drinking water was to provide alternative supplies for residents, primarily bottled water. That was crucial because lead and copper cause health problems ranging from stomach issues to brain damage. Lead is especially harmful because it can accumulate in the body over time.

Ultimately, however, the only surefire solution is the removal and replacement of all lead services lines, which is what residents on St. Croix have been demanding. This is a costly and time-consuming endeavor, especially for St. Croix. Since the two hurricanes in 2017, its public revenues have been reduced by roughly half, it has infrastructure investment needs of all kinds, and it has a labor shortage. The Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority is undertaking exploratory digging to identify lead service lines, but there is a long way to go to a full inventory. Once found, replacing lead service lines costs on average $5,000 per household. The resources mobilized by the federal disaster declaration are likely to be a useful start, but additional resources will be needed for full lead pipe replacement.

Lead and copper cause health problems ranging from stomach issues to brain damage. Lead is especially harmful because it can accumulate in the body over time.

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The EPA recently proposed revising the federal Lead and Copper Rule so that it would include a goal of achieving 100 percent lead pipe replacement in the United States within 10 years and lower the detectable amount of lead in drinking water that triggers a regulatory response. There are also a host of proposed procedural and programmatic changes that will make it easier to find and remove lead pipes. In support of these goals, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 includes $15 billion specifically for identifying and replacing lead pipes over the next five years. Research has shown there is strong public support for funding such efforts and they can yield as much as a 450 percent return on investment through avoided health costs.

Finally, St. Croix's response to the drinking water disaster will need to account for, and build resilience to, a changing climate. Changing patterns of water supply and demand due to drought and declining tourism (driven by sargassum blooms), have led to stagnated water in the distribution system. Stagnation can allow contaminants to accumulate in the water before it reaches a home or school. New infrastructure investments will have to account for these changing environmental conditions.

The immediate response to the contamination on St. Croix was critical for public health. But there is also a longer-term need to address more systemic risks and challenges and rebuild public trust. Although the federal disaster declaration was an important step, previous experience suggests systemic changes will be needed to ensure a safe, resilient drinking water system in St. Croix.

Sara Hughes is a senior policy researcher at RAND. Her recent work focuses on drinking water policy and planning, and equity-centered flood resilience.

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