Speed Reads

Public Works

The infrastructure bill will pour $15 billion into replacing lead pipes. Newark shows it can be done.

The $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill Congress sent to President Biden's desk Friday night, with more than $550 billion in new spending, is a major investment in America's roads, bridges, airports, electric grid, broadband, and other physical upgrades. But the portion that will perhaps improve lives the most is the $55 billion in water infrastructure, including $15 billion to replace lead pipes. Lead in drinking water is tied to developmental delays in children and brain, kidney, and blood damage.

The infrastructure money won't solve every city's water problems. Jackson, Mississippi, for example, says it needs $1 billion to fix its dilapidated water and sewage systems, but Mississippi will get $459 million to spend on water improvements across the state. The leaders of Jackson, which is 82 percent Black, say they already have plans drawn up to fix their water infrastructure — but they're not optimistic the Republicans who run the state will parcel out an equitable portion for their city, The Washington Post reports

"Anyone who thinks Mississippi will change the very consistent practice of not investing in Black people, they're delusional," Andre Perry at the Brookings Institution tells the Post.

"Although the problems with Jackson's water supply are extreme, they are not unique," the Post adds. "Cities such as Newark, Detroit, and Philadelphia — to name just a few — have experienced diminished water quality and reliability as their systems age." But Newark is ahead of schedule to replace all its lead-lined water pipes with copper, The Associated Press reports.

Under pressure from residents and sued by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Newark began replacing its 20,000 lead water service lines in 2019, AP reports. "Less than three years after the work began, the replacement project, initially projected to take up to 10 years, is nearly complete." 

Newark's success is attributable to an influx of state and local money, changes to state law and city ordinances that allow renters to admit workers into their buildings, and legal and political pressures. The city also says it sped up the job by training 75 unemployed and underemployed residents to work on the line replacement. 

The stars appear to have aligned in Newark while the state may prevent adequate federal investments in Jackson's water systems. But the stakes are high to get this done: the NRDC estimates the U.S. has as many as 12 million lead service lines that need replacing.