This article originally appeared in WQP July issue as "Three Keys to Successful Lead Service Line Replacement"
Six years after the drinking water crisis in Flint, Michigan, cities continue to grapple with the presence of lead in drinking water. While officials try to manage the problem with anti-corrosive agents, most water experts recognize this is a bandaid for the real problem: the presence of lead service lines (LSL) that leach the element into drinking water.
In an ideal world, all LSLs would be replaced with copper pipes, but LSL replacement programs are expensive and complex. The U.S. EPA estimates that there are 6.5 to 10 million LSLs in the country, and replacing these lines could cost as much as $80 billion. Complicating matters, many municipalities do not have good data on where LSLs exist and who owns them. In most areas, homeowners and municipalities share ownership of LSLs, and the high cost of replacement is out of reach for many homeowners.
The new Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) instituted by the EPA adds urgency to address the problem. It is estimated that nearly 10% of all water systems in the country have violated the LCR’s monitoring and reporting requirements in the past three years. That is because municipalities must rely on tap samples performed by customers on private property, which is difficult to manage and enforce, especially if many of your residents are renters.
This is the scenario that Newark, New Jersey, officials found themselves in after discovering that some residents with LSLs served by the Pequannock Water System were experiencing high levels of lead in their drinking water. The city implemented an aggressive 30 to 36 month LSL replacement program in 2019, targeting the replacement of 18,000 LSLs at no cost to the homeowner or landlord.
Since the majority of Newark’s residents are rental tenants, and not the owner of the residence, the city embarked on a LSL replacement program that combined education, engagement and automation to increase the rate of return of water testing kits. Officials partnered with 120Water, a digital water platform company, to develop the program.
Educating & Engaging Residents
In order to build consensus and engage residents in the LSL replacement program, it was important to first educate residents about the dangers of lead in drinking water. To do this, Newark and 120Water developed a program called “The Newark Way of Thinking & Drinking.” The goal was to weave education efforts among a variety of audiences, including landlords, tenants, residents and children in the community. A large focus was placed on educating kids, knowing that children often encourage their caretakers to take notice.
Newark’s program uses a variety of communication tactics to educate and engage Newark residents, including a multi-step direct mail campaign with educational content and interactive games.
Children are provided fun educational materials to take home via the city’s Newark Watershed Science & Leadership Academy. Materials include science projects using water, water bottles with stickers for decorating, a flyer with details on how to make a paper boat, crossword puzzles that focus on safe drinking water, and a coloring sheet and crayons with a water theme. All materials include an educational component that kids can share with parents and caretakers.
Officials also knew they needed to target adults directly in order to build engagement among Newark’s transient residents. The success of the program hinged on residents correctly using pitchers and filters for six months after their LSL was replaced, and then promptly adhering to the tap water testing protocol.
To build engagement, adults are encouraged to share the clean water message virally with a “Join Me” mailer that enables residents to inform and encourage their neighbors to participate in the clean water effort. Details about the need to use pitcher and filters for six months and then participate in tap tests was included.
Automating the Tap Test Program
With residents aware of the effort and engaged in the outcome, it is expected that tap testing kits will be returned faster and at a higher rate by landlords and residents. Six months after an LSL is replaced, 120Water triggers the mailing of a verification testing kit to residents with step-by-step, simple directions to fill the bottle and return it in the mailer provided. The kit is branded with the familiar “Newark Way of Thinking & Drinking” campaign, so residents should recognize the effort immediately.
Once the tap sample is taken, samples go directly to a state-certified laboratory where they are analyzed. The verification effort and results are tracked via 120Water’s cloud-based software solution. Once the water tests negative for lead, residents are informed that they no longer need to use the pitcher/filters for drinking water.
Newark’s effort to proactively educate and engage residents is a model of what a modern lead service line replacement program should be. Newark anticipates that educating residents about the importance of the lead drinking water program and making them partners in the success of the program will result in better cooperation, and ultimately better public health.
With a growing number of cities recognizing the need to replace lead service lines to ensure lead-free drinking water, Newark is modernizing how cities engage with residents to ensure these expensive endeavors are successful.