How Greater Cincinnati Water Works is Removing Lead Service Lines

By Jason DeLaet

Greater Cincinnati Water Works (GCWW) has had a successful program to address the risk of lead in drinking water for many years, always meeting USEPA’s Lead and Copper Rule requirements. Our utility service area has an estimated 44,000 lead service lines, including full lead service lines as well as those partially replaced on the public side with copper pipe. We have proactively offered free lead testing kits and water filter pitchers certified for lead removal to our customers for many years while simultaneously encouraging residents to replace their lead lines when impacted by a GCWW water main replacement project. This campaign had its challenges, however, primarily due to the private-side replacement cost the homeowner must incur. After the well-publicized events of Flint, Michigan, we decided to face this challenge head on. The resulting Enhanced Lead Program emerged from the fact that the best way to approach the risk of lead in drinking water is to remove the sources of lead, including those on private property, and we needed to involve and enable our residents and surrounding communities to achieve this outcome.

We developed a two-tiered approach with a goal of becoming a lead safe water city. The first tier includes public outreach and education strategies, and the second assists customers with lead service line replacement on private property. Customer affordability was identified early on as a major hurdle to private property lead service line replacement, so GCWW focused on developing financial assistance strategies to encourage and enable customer participation. This self-started initiative offers all customers educational resources and financial assistance to completely remove their lead service lines and the associated health risks from drinking water.

GCWW encourages Cincinnati residents to submit samples of their water for free testing. Photo: GCWW

Tier 1 program goals focus on public outreach and education. Early on, we sent letters to all residents in our service area who, according to records, had private-side lead service lines on their property. The letters informed residents of the risks and encouraged them to submit samples of their water for free lead testing. Concurrently, a “speakers bureau” of GCWW employees was formed to visit Cincinnati neighborhood councils and inform residents about lead in drinking water and the importance of removing lead service lines. These efforts were supplemented with messaging on social media to direct residents to the website as well as a dedicated phone line for more information.

GCWW recently launched a new website dedicated to the Enhanced Lead Program, where visitors can learn more about the dangers of lead and how to determine if their service lines are made of lead. The new website also includes a GIS-based map of Greater Cincinnati properties, searchable by address, to determine where lead services lines still exist in the GCWW service area. Visitors can sign up for free lead testing and request more information about lead line replacements using the website.

Tier 2 of the Enhanced Lead Program was designed to enable lead service line replacement. The greatest challenge in this effort has been to create a way to alleviate the financial burden of private-side replacement for property owners. At the urging of GCWW, Cincinnati City Council passed an ordinance declaring lead service lines to be a matter of public health and safety. This was a big step. By enacting this ordinance, City Council allowed GCWW to use rate payer funds to assist with lead service line replacement work on private property in the form of cost share. As one councilmember said, “This is a shared problem that will require shared resources; we all have a stake in this.”

With the groundwork laid, we began the Lead Service Line Replacement Program. The program uses pre-qualified plumbing contractors to do the work for property owners who sign replacement agreements with GCWW. We then coordinate all the replacement work, compensate the plumbing contractor once the work is completed, and then seek reimbursement from the property owner. To assist our property owners with the replacement cost, we created a cost-sharing program that covers 40 percent of the total construction cost of replacement up to a limit of $1,500. The cost-sharing program is available to all GCWW customers who join our Lead Service Line Replacement Program. The remaining amount is the responsibility of the property owner.

When considering reimbursement options for the balance of the cost (i.e., after the cost share amount is deducted), we realized the importance of separating the cost of replacement work from property owners’ monthly water bills. We did not want customers to experience a service shutoff for a delinquent water bill caused by this program. We determined a better, lower risk option was tying lead line replacement costs to the property as a special assessment, payable through property taxes. With this option, property owners can reimburse GCWW over a 5- or 10-year period, and the assessment remains with the property upon any transfer that may occur, further equalizing the cost among those who are benefiting. This financing is offered at a zero percent interest rate.

Despite the benefits listed above, we knew that lead service line replacement, which can run several thousand dollars, would be simply unaffordable for some property owners. For these individuals, the Cincinnati City Council authorized the creation of a customer assistance program designed specifically to help fund lead service line replacement for low-income property owners. The resulting program is called HELP (Help Eliminate Lead Pipes), which allows a one-time credit for an additional 30 percent off the balance of the replacement cost. Any property owner with a verifiable private-side lead service line is eligible to apply, and qualification is based on the most recent area median income levels as defined by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development for Hamilton County, Ohio.

The HELP program is completely funded by donations. GCWW offers a “1, 3, 5” program, where individuals can sign up to add $1, $3 or $5 to their monthly water bill as a donation. There is also an active campaign that allows City of Cincinnati employees to donate a portion of their paycheck to the HELP program. In addition, we seek to raise awareness of the Enhanced Lead Program and the need for funding.

The award-winning Enhanced Lead Program is off to a strong start. For other municipalities looking to begin their own lead service line removal program, we recommend focusing first on what will incentivize and enable people to act. When customers see a utility is willing to be a part of the solution, share the burden of replacement, and work to minimize or eliminate barriers to participation, they are more willing to get on board. Providing this level of support for customers boils down to funding and resources, and we have found creative ways to enable our program while working within our municipal boundaries. We are attempting to further address the funding challenge by reaching out to legislators at both the local and state levels.  Additionally, we are collaborating with other agencies, such as the local health departments, to serve as partners to reinforce our message.

We encourage other municipalities to get involved and see how they can initiate a similar program. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to this problem. It must work for both you and your customers. Lead service lines are a problem for people of all backgrounds and income levels, and in order to find a solution, it needs to be an inclusive, community-based effort. If you can come together as a community, removing the risk of lead to a home’s drinking water is a tremendous step toward attaining a lead safe community.

Jason DeLaet is the Enhanced Lead Program Manager for Greater Cincinnati Water Works.