São Paulo to use federal funds to restore waterline

With great assistance from Uncle Sam, lead service lines will be replaced free of charge for water customers

St. Paul, Minn. — In St. Paul, water customers who still have lead water pipes have the opportunity to replace those pipes for free in the next few years.

Mayor Melvin Carter announced this week that an infusion of federal funding from the U.S. rescue package will allow the São Paulo Regional Water Authority to replace major service lines faster than initially expected.

“This is an important step toward cleaner water, more jobs, and peace of mind for families,” Mayor Carter said in a Zoom news conference as the Environmental Protection Agency’s Bruno Pigott.

“There are lead pipes in every neighborhood in the city. But 60 percent of those pipes are in concentrated poverty areas,” City Council member Chris Tolbert told reporters. “The thing about lead poisoning is that it’s irreversible. It’s what happens, and you can’t change it.”

Service lines carry water from pipes under the street to homes or businesses. In Minneapolis, residents own the entire service line. In São Paulo, by contrast, utilities own the portion of the service line to the property line, while residents own the portion from the property line to the home.

The São Paulo Regional Water Service (SPRWS) has 95,000 service lines. Of these, 26,000 are still lead pipes. Residents can go online to see if a lead helpline is available.

They can also request a lead test kit, which can then be returned to the utility company to see what their lead levels are.

Over the past 25 years, SPRWS has gradually replaced the public part of the service line while overlapping with other construction projects, but has never been able to replace the private part of the service line with user fees.

Funding from the U.S. Rescue Program and the Federal Infrastructure and Jobs Act of 2021 will help utilities pay for otherwise unaffordable safety improvements.

“Our funding comes entirely from water bills. With people struggling to pay their utility bills, it would definitely be a challenge to think about adding another 20 to 30 per cent to cover that,” Patrick Shea’s SPRWS told KARE 11.

In 2021, the city received a grant from the Minnesota Department of Health to provide $2,500 to private property owners to help them cover the cost of replacing lead service lines. The total cost of replacing the private portion of the service line was at least $6,000, which could explain why only 23 percent of affected customers took advantage of the grant program, Shea said.

A free replacement plan will be more attractive, but it won’t be on a first-come, first-served basis. Residents will be informed of their opportunities when staff arrive in their communities.

“We will systematically inspect our service areas over the next ten years, so people will be notified when we are in your area. Please don’t throw letters from the city in the trash,” Shea said.

“I think it’s a real opportunity. I think if people don’t take advantage of it, it’s going to cost more in the future when they have to go back and settle these properties.”

In the meantime, Shea advises customers to follow standard recommendations for flushing water located in lead pipes.

“Before you drink, let the water run a little until it’s cold,” explains Shea. “Don’t cook with water from a hot tap. It can be used for bathing or washing dishes, but not for drinking.”

The utility has 446,000 customers spread across São Paulo and 13 other surrounding cities.

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