Pipe proposal could be bridge too far

Lately, it seems the phrase “get the lead out” has seen an uptick in use quite a bit here in the Great Lakes State.

A quick search on the world wide web will tell you the saying means, in rough generalizations, to dispose of whatever is slowing you down and move more quickly.

Here in Michigan, local governments will have to do exactly that in order to meet proposed state standards related to municipal infrastructure. Only, it sounds as though they will likely be required to “dispose of” great amounts of taxpayer money from their own coffers to comply with those state mandates.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality has proposed a plan that calls for the removal and replacement of all lead water pipes in the state within the next two decades.

It’s an ambitious proposal, one which we believe to be very worthy, although now a bit impractical.

“The new rules would require (municipalities) to start removing lead service lines at an average rate of 5 percent per year, which would get us to 100 percent over 20 years,” Eric Oswald, the director of the DEQ’s Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance Division, was quoted as saying in a recent Journal article.

As the article notes, removing lead from the very vital water infrastructure systems has always been a goal. But after the crisis in Flint, the initiative gained a lot of traction.

On one side, we have to agree with the DEQ on the importance of getting the lead out of our drinking water. Flint showed the entire nation of the terrible tragedies that can occur when our government-run systems fail, and the citizens who place their trust in them and rely on them are left behind with the scars.

There’s no doubt in our minds that avoiding this type of unfortunate turn of events is a primary objective, and we can’t argue with state officials on that point.

But on the other side, the expense to remove and replace all the lead piping in Michigan’s water systems will be very costly, and the state says it won’t be helping much to pick up the tab.

Oswald admits the massive undertaking likely includes 500,000 lead service lines statewide and billions of dollars in funding.

Some cities and townships have been working to improve their infrastructures, and maybe they’ll be better off. But many municipalities in Michigan are already cash-strapped and finding the money to complete this overhaul may be a bridge too far.

Officials, at least here in the Upper Peninsula, have complained of fewer state revenue sharing dollars making their way into local coffers over the years, ultimately causing municipalities to rely more heavily on taxpayer revenues for operational expenses, road repairs and other routine maintenance items.

It’s uncertain whether the state would be able to afford to help local municipalities “get the lead out” — even if it wanted to in the first place.