| Green Bay celebrates last lead service line removal
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Green Bay celebrates last lead service line removal

On a bright, sunny day in early October, utility workers, neighbors and government officials gathered to watch a big moment for the city of Green Bay, Wis., applauding as crews dug out the last remaining lead service line in the city.

Green Bay Water construction crew  replacing lead service line“Their actions today will make a huge difference down the road,” said Green Bay resident Deb Weaver, whose 80-year-old house was the final property in a five-year, $6 million project to locate and replace nearly 1,800 service lines in the city’s water distribution system. “This is an issue we can’t ignore. We have to get the lead out.”

Lead, a toxin harmful to human health, typically gets into drinking water through lead service lines, household plumbing materials and fixtures. In 2012, tests in Green Bay showed elevated levels of lead in the city. At about the same time, the water crisis in Flint, Mich., occurred, prompting utility officials and lawmakers to zero in on Green Bay’s lead pipes.

Nancy Quirk“We just said, ‘Let’s get rid of the source of lead,’” said Nancy Quirk (pictured left), general manager of Green Bay Water Utility. “This is the right thing to do.”

It was a daunting task. First, the utility had to locate all the lead service lines. Its engineering team dug through records from the 1800s and early 20th century with high-tech software to find potential lead lines. Front office and billing staff helped find current property owners. Meter readers knocked on 3,000 doors in the city to check pipes, and distribution crews used vacuums and specialized cameras to scan deep into the lines, looking for lead.

Of the 36,000 service lines in the city, roughly 5%, or 1,782, were found to contain lead.

At the time, it was recognized that the city owned the service line from the main to the shutoff valve, and property owners were responsible for the service line from the curb to their basement meter. Green Bay could replace the portion it owned, but Wisconsin law prohibited the utility from replacing the privately owned side. Unfortunately, if the privately owned portion contained lead, replacing only the utility-owned side wouldn’t stop the toxin from leaching into the property’s drinking water. 

Green Bay Water construction crew digging up lead service lineSo, Green Bay worked with the state legislature to change a law and with city officials to change a local ordinance. This allowed the utility to oversee the replacement of 247 privately owned lead lines.

From there, the utility’s finance experts implemented two rate increases over five years, nudging up water bills by about 3% annually. They secured an $800,000 Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources loan and a $300,000 tax rebate, all to help pay for the $6 million replacement effort.

Once the utility had a plan in place, crews went to work. They dug and trenched in heat, rain, sleet and snow all year long for five years, replacing every lead service line. The metering team followed, flushing properties, while the office and administration team fielded hundreds of calls from customers with questions.
“We were adapting all the time, especially when COVID happened,” Quirk said. “We had to stop going into every home to flush for a while. But then we got the crews N95 masks and PPE (personal protective equipment), and they went back to work.”

Quirk said she regularly turned to AWWA resources, webinars and seminars, as well as colleagues at other utilities, for ideas on completing this monumental task. The key, she said, was not giving up.

“You just need to find a way to make it happen,” she said. “Figure out a way around it. There are going to be things that pop up that you don’t expect. We were all learning as we went along.”

Geen Bay Water cre removing lead service lineTheir monumental effort has already paid off. Before the lead service line replacements, Quirk said they’d receive household plumbing samples with lead at 10, 15 or 20 parts per billion. Now, tests come back at 1 part per billion or less.

“Green Bay Water made this a priority,” said Weaver, who has lived in Green Bay for six years. “They took the hardest, but the best route. It shows how much they care about their citizens. They put our health and welfare first.”

More information about managing lead in drinking water is available on AWWA’s website. (Photos courtesy of Green Bay Water Utility)