CA Bill Directs Federal Funds to Remove Lead in Water

AB 1931 would direct hundreds of millions of federal dollars to removing lead sources from our drinking water system. But the state and water utilities need to recognize they have a problem first.

A corroded water pipe

Credit: Geographer at English Wikipedia, via Wikimedia Commons

AB 1931 could prevent throwing good water money after bad

Right now, the California legislature is considering a bill that would remove known large sources of lead contamination in our drinking water. AB 1931 by environmental and public health champion, Assembly Member Luz Rivas, would steer the over $500 million in federal dollars the state will receive over the next two years for lead pipe removal towards projects in disadvantaged communities and projects that fully remove plumbing that acts as a source of lead. California is eligible for hundreds of millions of dollars over the next five years, but state officials must acknowledge the scope of the problem to draw down the maximum amount of federal funding.  AB 1931 aims to ensure California removes all lead hazards in water lines in accordance with federal law and regulations, and EPA’s recent Implementation Memorandum.

It might seem like a no-brainer, and it certainly is when it comes to public health, but there has been serious push back from water utilities and even from the state agency in charge of doling out the cash. That’s in part because water utilities have been conducting partial lead line (also called lead service lines) replacements in earnest since at least 2016. These partial replacements are dangerous to public health because the replacement activities themselves often cause lead spikes in home drinking water and, of course, a partial replacement leaves a potential on-going source of lead at residents’ doorsteps. 

This problem highlights the other issue AB 1931 aims to address; directing funds towards completing the job of fully replacing all pipes and components that cause lead risk (including those from the street to customers’ homes), thereby addressing health risks from the partial replacements that already happened. AB 1931 would also place safeguards on partial replacements, ensuring they only occur in limited exceptions such as emergency repair work and when the homeowner doesn’t consent to a full replacement. EPA has made clear that the Biden Infrastructure Funds cannot be used for partial replacements and that the funds can be used to fix the previous partial replacements that California’s water systems have been doing for years.

The bill aligns California’s replacement activities with the federal Lead and Copper Rule Revisions currently in effect. That rule provides basic health protections that are lacking in the state, protections like:

  • notice to affected residents informing them of a possible increase in lead in their drinking water
  • provision of certified water filters to protect residents from lead spikes
  • offering to conduct water sampling related to replacement activities

Importantly, and in line with EPA’s guidance, AB 1931 includes galvanized plumbing as eligible for replacement and funding. This is vital, as galvanized plumbing is also a source of lead in our water—the pipes themselves contain lead, and lead builds up on and then is released by galvanized plumbing if there was a lead source upstream of the pipe. The harms posed by these pipes have been documented from Fresno to Washington, D.C.; leaving them in the ground is dangerous and a waste of time and money.

The first step to fixing a problem is recognizing you have a problem. AB 1931 pushes the state and water utilities to address insufficient, partial line replacements and do more to protect people from lead in their drinking water. By including basic health protections, limiting partial replacements (or at least the funds that can be used for partials), and encouraging utilities to go back and fix their previous work, AB 1931 aims to drastically reduce the major sources of lead in our drinking water. All that, and it won’t cost the state a dime. Who doesn’t want that? 

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