Madison Water Utility Completes Successful Lead Pipe Replacement Project

Tuesday, June 12, 2012 - 6:56am

The Madison Water Utility has arrived at the end of a successful 11-year program to insure that all lead water service lines in the City are replaced to protect human health. The program's success is a model nationwide to other cities that have struggled with how to meet federal standards for eliminating lead in drinking water.

The Madison project involved getting more than 6,000 customer water lateral pipes converted from early 20th century lead to much safer copper, plus 6,000 utility-side connection replacements. The program was created to insure that both the utility's and property owners' water service connections could not be a source of lead-contaminated water, and to comply with a 1991 federal "Lead and Copper Rule." To accomplish this goal, Madison used a twin strategy of incentives and fines. Financial incentives were offered in the form of reimbursements of half the homeowner's cost up to $1,000. Property owners who refused could face significant fines, but just about none did.

Although lead is not a concern in Madison's source water, it can enter tap water through corrosion of plumbing materials. Before 1927, it was common practice for water utilities to use lead pipes to connect homes and businesses to the water mains in the streets. After that point, the Madison Water Utility stopped using lead for the buried pipes from the mains to the edge of private property, although some property owners continued to install lead plumbing on their portion of the service connection until the 1940s.

In 2000, in accordance with directives from the U.S. EPA, the Wisconsin DNR and City of Madison ordinances, the utility was directed to ensure that all lead service lines were replaced. Customers with lead service lines on their private property were required to replace their portion at the same time the utility replaced its section of the service line from the water main to the curb box. Property owners were notified by mail when their connection was scheduled for replacement and when they needed to hire a licensed plumber to have the work done.

Virtually all homes and commercial buildings with lead services were in older sections of the city built before 1927, as well as in some areas annexed to Madison.

Madison's successful water service replacement program has become an example to other cities that have attempted other approaches to reducing lead in drinking water, often with little success. Some have tried adding orthophosphate to the water supply, an approach designed to reduce pipe corrosion. Some have used partial replacement programs, replacing only the utility-owned portion of the pipes, but that approach leaves the owner's lead pipes in the ground and often actually increases the lead corrosion.

After completion of Madison's replacement program, however, recent testing has confirmed that Madison's water is in full compliance with the federal Lead and Copper regulation.


  • Gail Gawenda, Water Utility PIO608:266-9129

Water Utility