2023 Minnesota legislative session

Walz signs $240 million lead pipe removal bill 

A man sits and signs a bill
Gov. Tim Walz signs into law a bill that will provide hundreds of millions of dollars to remove and replace lead pipes across the state on Tuesday in St. Paul.
Michelle Wiley | MPR News

Minnesota lawmakers are committing hundreds of millions of dollars to get lead out of drinking water throughout Minnesota. Standing in front of the water treatment facility in St. Paul, Gov. Tim Walz signed a bill that would allocate $240 million toward removing and replacing lead pipes in homes across the state.

“We've got the opportunity with this money and a continued push to go forward is to maybe be one of the first states to totally eliminate lead from our systems, that would be a real goal," Walz said. “It all comes back to that bigger theme that makes Minnesota the best place to raise a child and to have a family.”

Even small amounts of lead exposure can have profound impacts on health, especially for young children. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “[e]ven low levels of lead in blood have been shown to negatively affect a child’s intelligence, ability to pay attention, and academic achievement.”

Who pays to replace pipes depends on where you live. Generally, the pipe that runs from the water main to the sidewalk is the financial responsibility of the city, whereas a pipe from the sidewalk to the water meter is the responsibility of the homeowner.

Though that’s not true for all cities. In Minneapolis, homeowners bear more of the cost, from the water main to the meter, according to Annika Bankston, director for the Minneapolis Division of Water Treatment and Distribution Services. She said this bill is a good start but that it will take significantly more funding to address the entirety of lead pipe removal and replacement in Minnesota’s biggest city.

“Minneapolis has approximately 47,000 private lead service lines. So the total estimated cost to replace all those service lines is actually around $350 million,” Bankston said.

While she said the city’s water is clean, and treated to help keep lead in a service line from dissolving in the water, the bill will help the city identify funding priorities for this first step. Likely starting with those most vulnerable to the harmful impacts of lead exposure, like at-home daycares, and then looking at providing underserved and low-income residents as well.

And that could be significant, since the cost to replace lead pipes is high, with estimates in the thousands. There can also be variability depending on how far a home is from the sidewalk or  water main.

The city of St. Paul recently expanded efforts to cover the costs of lead line replacement. Speaking at the press conference, Mayor Melvin Carter said when they first began the program, “we started that sort of stepping out on faith, saying ‘we're not sure of the whole kind of staircase. But we're going to take the first step.’”

Now with the signing of this bill, Carter said state leaders are demonstrating that “we're not just going to do this in St. Paul, but statewide, we're going to make sure that every child and every family has clean drinking water.”

“We know that [replacing lead lines] is a cost prohibitive improvement that people need to take care of their health. And so, with this, homeowners will experience no cost for replacing the lead service line,” said Rep. Sydney Jordan, DFL-Minneapolis, who co-authored the House bill.

A 2019 report from the Minnesota Department of Health and the University of Minnesota found that it would cost the state more than $4 billion to get lead out of drinking water, but that the return on investment would be significant in terms of health outcomes. Jordan said the funding approved Tuesday would also help the state access additional federal dollars through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

The bill also contains funding for cities to identify where these contaminated pipes are, and that they will get in touch with homeowners who need to have their systems replaced.

“Cities and utilities will let the customers know,” Jordan said. “I would look at a pipe and I would be like, ‘I think it looks like copper. I think it looks like lead, but I'm not sure.’ So it's up to the city to say, ‘Nope, Sydney, you definitely got one’ or ‘Nope, you're good to go.’”

A woman in a blue dress speaks at a podium
Rep. Sydney Jordan, DFL - Minneapolis, is the co-author of a House bill on removing lead pipes.
Michelle Wiley | MPR News

Aside from the funding aspect, Bankston said there are other hurdles to getting pipes like these removed and replaced that could make the state’s goal to get rid of lead pipes in the next 10 years difficult.

“It is going to be challenging, just from workforce needs, materials needs and cooperation of property owners, quite frankly,” she said, also noting that Minnesota’s tempestuous seasons mean that work can only occur during certain months of the year.

Still, at the press conference Tuesday, state officials noted that this investment is a start. And one that they believe will have positive impacts in the long-run.

“This is the golden age of infrastructure,” Walz said. “From lead pipes to roads, bridges, transit, broadband, we're going to see investments over the next decade or so that we've not seen for a generation. And those are all good paying union jobs in Minnesota. These are skilled crafts. This is what builds our middle class.”

Officials with LIUNA Minnesota, a construction trades union at the event said they estimate the bill will create and maintain around 2,400 jobs annually over the next 10 years.