The nonprofit association said that the figure suggests progress has been made over the past two decades but an estimated $30 billion challenge remains.
When the Lead and Copper Rule was instituted in 1991, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated there were 10.2 million lead service lines nationwide.
The latest analysis suggests the number of remaining lead service lines could be as high as 7.1 million and as low as 5.5 million.
David A. Cornwell, president of Environmental Engineering & Technology (EE&T Inc.) and co-author of the report, said: “Approximately 7 percent of the homes connected to community water systems have a lead service line. There are about 15 to 22 million Americans nationally served by lead lines.”
In most cases, these pipes are owned partially by the water utility and partially by property owners.
“Communities have taken positive steps for more than two decades to reduce lead exposure from water and other sources,” said AWWA CEO David LaFrance. “But there is clearly much more to be done. The Flint crisis lays bare a simple fact: As long as there are lead pipes in the ground or lead plumbing in homes, some risk remains. As a society, we should seize this moment of increased awareness about lead risks to develop solutions for getting the lead out.”
On Tuesday, the AWWA board said that it supports recommendations from the National Drinking Water Advisory Council (NDWAC) that would strengthen the Lead and Copper Rule and ultimately lead to the complete removal of lead service lines.
Among the group’s key recommendations are that water utilities:
- Locate and replace all lead service lines completely, sharing responsibility for the task with customers.
- Conduct additional monitoring and analysis of water quality parameters in order to better manage corrosion control.
- Expand on current educational outreach to alert customers, particularly those with lead service lines, to the risks posed by lead and steps they can take to reduce those risks.
- Analyze customer samples for lead upon request.
“The water community’s first priority is to provide safe water for everyone,” LaFrance said. “The AWWA board’s support for the NDWAC recommendations underscores the importance of protecting families today from lead exposure and a shared responsibility among utilities, customers, property owners and government for the complete removal of lead service lines over time.”
The average cost of replacing each remaining lead service line is estimated at around $5,000, which means the collective cost could top $30 billion, LaFrance added.
“This is in addition to $1 trillion needed over 25 years to repair and expand buried drinking water mains. So as communities and as a broader society, we must advance a serious discussion on how we pay to get the lead out.”