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St. Paul homeowners to get free replacements for lead water pipes, backed by $4M in COVID relief

City's program could be test run for state of Minnesota

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Thaddeus Brink, at his St. Paul Hamline-Midway home on Thursday, March 24, 2022, hopes to replace his lead water service pipes using federal American Rescue Plan money. St. Paul Regional Water Services will dedicate $4 million in federal money over the next 10 years to replace lead water service pipes on private property throughout the city. Those lead lines — which run from your basement water meter to your curb — are on private property, meaning homeowners need to be proactive and sign up.
Scott Takushi / St. Paul Pioneer Press
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ST. PAUL -- Relief dollars from the federal American Rescue Plan Act have helped keep small businesses afloat, house the homeless and pay for COVID testing and vaccination clinics.

Next up: Replacing lead water pipes throughout St. Paul, which could be a test case of sorts for the entire state.

On Wednesday, the St. Paul City Council authorized moving $4 million in federal American Rescue Plan funding to launch a lead pipe replacement fund. St. Paul Regional Water Services is preparing a 10-year plan to replace all lead service lines at no cost to property owners, with work to begin in 2023, but here’s the catch.

Those lead lines — which run from your basement water meter to your curb — are on private property, meaning homeowners will need to be proactive and seek out the service, which will represent an average savings of $6,000 per property.

“It will be a voluntary, free program,” said Patrick Shea, general manager of St. Paul Regional Water Services. “We want to make sure we get as much as we can done with the funds available. Getting people to sign up will be a full-court effort.”

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If you’re a homeowner who was planning to replace your lead service line anyway, hold that thought and call water services first at 651-266-6270.

Shea is working with St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter’s administration on a formal announcement, details of which will be unveiled next week.

“We haven’t done this kind of project before, so we need to learn what works, what doesn’t work,” Shea said. “It allows us to do a very soft roll-out in 2022, and as close as we can perfect our plan for 2023 through 2032 — 10 years.”

State has plan, too

The state of Minnesota is readying its own lead replacement program, funded with federal infrastructure dollars — $43 million per year for five years.

“It’s an application process, similar to how a community would apply for infrastructure funds to build a water tower,” Shea said. “If it goes the way other programs go, every year (cities would) apply, the state figures out how much money it has to give out, and they do applications based on that process. If a city doesn’t have any lead services, that just makes the pie bigger for those that do.”

The $4 million in federal relief money is specific to St. Paul, and it’s likely to go fast. At an average cost of $6,000 per home, those funds alone would pay for fewer than 700 projects. Outfitting every eligible property — as many as 26,000 citywide — would cost upwards of $220 million.

Lead, a common but unwelcome contaminant in drinking water, is found in many water service lines installed in St. Paul homes built before 1926 and in some homes built between 1942 and 1947, according to the city.

Gradual replacement

While homeowners own their service lines up to the curb-stop, St. Paul Regional Water Services maintains the connection from the curb-stop to the water main in the street, and has been gradually replacing those linkages for more than two decades.

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“We’ve done the replacements over the last 25 years of the publicly-owned section,” Shea said. “We spend between $2 million to $3 million per year on that work currently.”

Soon, homeowners interested in replacing the portion of their water line that sits on their private property will be able to do so free of charge, but only if they sign up.

The “ARPA” funds, authorized by Congress and signed into law by President Joe Biden in March of last year, provided states and local governments with $350 billion, with cities collecting their $45.8 billion share in two installments. St. Paul will net $166.6 million from the legislation, the equivalent of a year’s worth of property tax levy.

Despite the windfall, members of the city council have noted there’s plenty of competing demands for the cash, which much be spent within a certain timeframe — “obligated” by Dec. 31, 2024 and spent by Dec. 31, 2026 — and cannot be used on expenses outside of the scope of the legislation, as wide-ranging as it is.

Those eligible expenses include assistance to households, small businesses, nonprofits and the tourism and hospitality industry, and providing premium pay for front-line workers. Expenses can also include water, sewer or broadband infrastructure, and covering general government services to the extent that the COVID-19 public health emergency reduced city revenue compared to the most recent fiscal year before COVID became widespread.

With an eye toward infrastructure, city officials have noted that for the working poor, even important home improvements like replacing a lead pipe can feel out of reach, and especially so during a public health crisis that has fallen disproportionately hard on low-wage workers.

The council resolution that was adopted Wednesday states that “both the public health and economic impacts of the pandemic have fallen most severely on communities and populations disadvantaged before it began.”

St. Paul Regional Water Service will roll out more details next week.

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More information is online at tinyurl.com/STPLeadPipe22.

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