California requires replacement of all lead service lines – but vigilance needed on implementation

Tom Neltner, Chemicals Policy Director

In 2016, California became the first state in the country to make enforceable commitments to eliminating all lead service lines (LSLs) in the state.  These lead pipes that connect the main under the street to homes are the primary source of lead in drinking water and unpredictably release lead particulate when disturbed.  Under the leadership of Senator Connie Leyva, the state’s Senate voted unanimously, and the Assembly voted 72 to 7 to pass SB1398 to require drinking water utilities to inventory LSLs in use and then provide the State Water Resources Control Board (Water Board) a timeline for replacement of the lines.

Based on a national survey of utilities, the American Water Works Association reported that California has 65,000 LSLs out of 6.1 million nationally.  Large utilities have the most with 46,000 LSLs, medium systems have 4,700 and small systems have 15,000.  However, most utilities do not have an accurate inventory of LSLs, so the true number may be much greater.

California’s SB1398 recognized that an accurate inventory was critical and laid out a thoughtful two-step plan to accomplish the objective of full LSL replacement.  By July 1, 2018, it requires public water systems (PWS) to submit an inventory of known LSLs and a timeline for their replacement.  Two years later, PWSs must submit an updated inventory of LSLs and provide a timeline to replace any service line where it may be made of lead.  The law does not set a deadline for replacement that PWSs must meet.

This two-step approach makes replacing known LSLs the highest priority and, by essentially presuming that a service line is lead unless known otherwise, also creates an incentive for PWSs to develop accurate inventories in the next three years.

How the Water Board implements the law is critical. We see three key issues:

  1. What is a lead service line?

The law applies to any “user service line,” which is defined by the Water Board to mean “the pipe, tubing, and fittings connecting a water main to an individual water meter or service connection.”  This definition seems straightforward on its surface.  If the meter is inside the home, it includes the underground pipe from the main to the home.  However, my understanding is that in California most meters are not in the home, they are near the property line.  This means that a PWS could declare a home as served by a non-lead line when, in fact, part of the line is made of lead.

In contrast, the federal and California regulatory definitions of “lead service lines” covers the entire line from the water main to the building inlet – not the meter.  We understand that the legislature did not use the LSL definition because it would be inconsistent with the presumption that a line was an LSL if the materials were not known. In other words, it is not an LSL until it is known to have a lead pipe. As a result, California’s definition of “user service line” referenced in SB1398 could be applied in a manner that is narrower and less protective than that used by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA).

The issue is critical since replacing only the part of the line to the meter (a “partial replacement”) does not reduce lead levels and, in the short-term, may actually increase them. We hope that the Water Board will quickly revise its definition of user service line to include the entire line from the water main to the building inlet.

Given the attention on LSLs as a result of Flint, it is difficult to imagine that a California utility would comply with the new mandate by ignoring the portion of the LSL from the meter to the home. Similarly, we hope that they will not conduct partial LSL replacements, except as a temporary measure with a protections for residents and short-term plan for full replacement.

  1. What replacement timeline is sufficient?

The law calls for lead water pipes to be “identified and replaced as promptly as practicable” and that the work be done on “a schedule that is commensurate with the risks and costs involved.” With this guidance, the legislature leaves it to the Water Board and the PWSs to negotiate a timeline. We assume that the Water Board will issue guidance or rules to facilitate the process so the timelines proposed by the PWSs are realistic.

  1. Can the Water Board meet deadlines?

The Water Board reports that there are 7,500 PWSs in the state.  When it receives each of the timelines from a PWS, it has 30 days to approve it or propose a revised timeline and explain its reasoning.  Then the Board and the PWS have 30 days to develop a compromise timeline. If the Water Board fails to act, the timeline is deemed approved.

If most of the timelines are submitted close to the 2018 and 2020 deadlines, the Water Board will have a major task on its hands to review the submissions and make a decision.  If it falls behind, the replacement timeline is final.

The bottom line is that California’s legislature has taken strong action to protect public health and left it to the Water Board to implement the law.  It will be critical to make sure the Water Board and PWSs use a definition of service line that means the entire line from the water main to the building inlet and not just the meters.  Otherwise, drinking water will still be flowing through lead pipes, which is what the legislature wanted to stop.


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