2,000 down, 8,000 to go the City of Kalamazoo says of replacing lead water service lines

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series.

The City of Kalamazoo will continue its efforts to eliminate lead water service lines by replacing 2,000 more of them next year in the city’s Northside Neighborhood, the Northwood section of Kalamazoo Township, and adjacent areas.
Called the “North Kalamazoo” project, the $20 million effort is to begin after approvals are made and contractors are assigned late this year. It is to be completed in 2023. The project is targeting lead water services in an area generally north of Kalamazoo Avenue to the Township line and between Nichols Road and the Kalamazoo River, according to information provided by the city.
“Lead is not good and we need to make sure all the service lines in Kalamazoo are copper,” says Kalamazoo Public Services Director James Baker.
Elevated levels of lead can cause serious health problems, the city points out in information it has distributed. Infants and children who drink water containing lead may have delays in their development, mentally and physically. Adults who drink water contaminated with high levels of lead over a long period of time may develop kidney problems or high blood pressure. 
To replace lead water service lines, work crews will dig holes adjacent to houses to replace non-copper lines with copper.The use of lead water lines stopped in Kalamazoo in about 1950. And the city has had a program since 1992 to rid its water system of lead service lines. But it was not on a schedule to get rid of the lines in any set amount of time.
“We were replacing them when we did road projects,” Baker says. “We replace them when we come upon them. If we were out doing excavating and we found one, we’d replace it. But we didn’t have an established program where we were on pace and committed to replacing all the lead lines in the city and in Kalamazoo Township by any date for certain.”
Efforts were accelerated after authorities determined in 2016 that there were still about 10,000 non-copper service lines in the system. “Non-copper” refers to any piping that is known to be lead, is known to be galvanized iron, or is made of any material that is not copper, Baker says. It also includes any service lines of which the city is unsure.
With more attention focused on making replacements, all lead water service lines should be removed in a 20-year time period.
“When we launched our program in 2017 at an accelerated pace, it was based on replacing 10,000 lines,” Baker says. “So we have been doing approximately 500 per year since 2017. So we’ve gotten about 2,000 non-copper replacements completed.”
The North Kalamazoo effort will start with two informational meetings in April for community members at Mt. Zion Baptist Church, 120 Robertson St. The in-person meetings are scheduled for 3 to 4 p.m. on Monday, April 12; and 6 to 7 p.m. on Thursday, April 15.
“This is a large project and we want to make sure that everyone who lives in the project area understands this work, why it’s needed, and what they can expect throughout the course of the project,” Baker says.
Work to replace lead water service lines has taken place in various parts of the city.A service line is a small-diameter pipe that connects the plumbing of most houses out to a water main in the street. In a house with a basement, it is typically the pipe that comes through the foundation wall and connects to the water meter. Contracted work crews will dig holes that may be up to 5 feet deep, 10 feet long, and 6 feet wide to replace non-copper lines with copper. They will work in the street adjacent to houses, sparing private property, Baker says.
According to the city, homeowners will not incur any costs. The project is being funded in part by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy’s Drinking Water Revolving Fund, which provides low-interest funding for investments in water utilities. Part of the work will be funded through the city’s capital improvement budget. And the Kalamazoo Foundation for Excellence has provided $500,000 per year since 2017, identifying the lead service replacements as a safety issue.
“It’s an opportunity to improve the infrastructure for the safety of families and everybody in the city,” says Steven Brown, manager of the Foundation for Excellence.
He said the city has fantastic water and the water service lines do not appear to pose a threat. But there still is lead in the system, he says, “And so, if we can get that out of our system, and then be a totally lead-free system, absolutely all the better.”
The “North Kalamazoo” project is targeting lead water services in an area generally north of Kalamazoo Avenue to the Township line; and between Nichols Road and the Kalamazoo River, according to information provided by the cityThe North Kalamazoo project will come in on the heels of the East Kalamazoo project, in which the city has been working since March and April of 2020 to replace 1,350 water service lines in the Eastside Neighborhood and the Eastwood section of Kalamazoo Township. Baker says that contractors are replacing about six service lines each workday and are on track to complete that work by the end of this year.
The North Kalamazoo Project is expected to start in March of 2022 and be done in 2023.
Contractors will be used on the special project to allow city work crews to continue to handle their regular workload.
City officials are encouraging area residents to attend the meeting that best fits their schedule, as the same information will be shared at each of the meetings. Health precautions will be in effect to protect those participating in the meetings. A recording will be made available for community members who are not comfortable attending in-person.
Along with the Northside and Kalamazoo Township-Northwood, residents of the Stuart, West Douglas/Fairmont neighborhoods will also be affected.
“It is a great project,” Brown says. “It’s one of these things where something that was formerly inconceivable to achieve in even our children’s lifetimes, is now possible in our own lifetimes. And you don’t really hear that in the United States anymore when it comes to infrastructure because, as a society, we don’t really make those investments the way that we used to and the way other countries currently do. It seems super special but it’s really, basically what any functioning civilization should do.”
More information about the city’s effort is available here.
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Al Jones is a freelance writer who has worked for many years as a reporter, editor, and columnist. He is the Project Editor for On the Ground Kalamazoo.