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There’s big money for water quality issues in the federal infrastructure bill. What that means for Minnesota.

One thing it won’t do: rid the state of all lead service lines, a stated goal of President Joe Biden. 

Minnesota expects to get $680 million over the next five years to make infrastructure upgrades that improve wastewater discharge and drinking water.
Minnesota expects to get $680 million over the next five years to make infrastructure upgrades that improve wastewater discharge and drinking water.
Photo by Jos Speetjens on Unsplash

The largest parts of Minnesota’s $6.8 billion share of the $1.2 trillion federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act are headed to roads, bridges and public transportation. But the biggest slice after that will help address an issue that affects cities and towns throughout Minnesota: clean water.

The state expects to get $680 million over the next five years to make infrastructure upgrades that improve wastewater discharge and drinking water. In total, the Environmental Protection Agency will allocate $7.4 billion to states, tribes and U.S. territories for 2022. 

State officials and advocates say the money won’t solve longstanding problems with treatment plants and clean water distribution, issues the state has thrown hundreds of millions of dollars at in recent years to help fix. It also won’t accomplish a stated goal of President Joe Biden: remove all lead service lines, which connect water mains to people’s homes.

But the cash is still significant, and will help Minnesota make health and safety upgrades like replacing many service lines and cleaning up water contaminated with PFAS, known as “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down in the environment, that are commonly used in products like nonstick cookware and coating for food packaging.

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“We have reason to be excited, very excited about the money that’s coming in,” said Elizabeth Wefel, an attorney and lobbyist for the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, which regularly advocates for clean water infrastructure at the state Capitol. “It’s going to allow us to think creatively and tackle some of the lagging infrastructure issues we have.” 

Where the money will go

State officials still don’t have exact details for how the feds wants Minnesota to spend its $680 million for water infrastructure, but the state does have some rough estimates.  

More than half of the money will fund low-interest loans and grants for more traditional water infrastructure projects in two existing programs that run on state and federal funding.

One is used to build or upgrade wastewater treatment plants to comply with federal discharge standards. The other is used to help build water storage, treatment and distribution systems for safe drinking water.

The state already gets money regularly from the federal government for the drinking and wastewater programs — $46 million this year — but the infrastructure bill will likely be more than $300 million over the five years for traditional projects in the programs, said Jeff Freeman, executive director of Minnesota’s Public Facilities Authority, which helps oversee the programs.

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Water and sewer infrastructure is “probably the most expensive thing that cities do,” Freeman said, which is why low-interest loans and grants are available. It’s particularly hard for smaller cities and towns around the state because they would need huge increases in fees on the relatively few number of residents to pay for large projects to upgrade wastewater or drinking water infrastructure.

Outside of the more typical water projects, the federal government also carved out money for addressing specific problems.

Roughly 10 to 12 percent of Minnesota’s federal infrastructure money for water is for “emerging contaminants.” One major emerging contaminant is PFAS, which has leaked into groundwater in some areas of the state. In 2018, Minnesota settled a lawsuit for $850 million against 3M after the company was alleged to have polluted drinking water with PFAS in the eastern part of the Twin Cities metro area. 

What the bill means for lead service lines

Lastly, another roughly 30 percent of Minnesota’s federal infrastructure money for water will specifically be for replacing lead service lines, Freeman said.

Lead pollution in water doesn’t typically come from the source of water itself. Instead it comes in distribution systems: Most cities used lead pipes before they were phased out in the 1950s and 1960s, said Sandeep Burman, state drinking water administrator at the Minnesota Department of Health.

For the most part, lead exposure is controlled through chemicals that coat pipes and prevent lead from leaching into water. But health officials say there is no safe level of lead and not all exposure is prevented. It’s also costly to test and monitor water for lead pollution.

Lead exposure is particularly dangerous for children and can lead to damage in the brain, nervous system, kidneys and red blood cells. Other impacts include lower IQs and hearing loss. The water crisis in Flint, Michigan is an extreme example of lead contamination.

While there have been no disasters of similar scope in Minnesota, childhood lead exposure in the state is directly related to poverty, according to data collected by MDH.

Kids living in neighborhoods with higher childhood poverty rates are more than twice as likely to have lead poisoning than kids living in neighborhoods with average poverty, and three and half times as likely to have elevated blood lead levels when compared to kids in neighborhoods with lower-than-average poverty levels. Lead poisoning also disproportionately affects Black children, since 37 percent of Black children in Minnesota live in poverty as compared to eight percent of white children, according to MDH.

“If you look at overall children’s exposure to lead, the primary exposure is still dust from lead paint and older homes. And there is an equity challenge here because those same older homes are the ones that tend to have the lead service lines,” said Tannie Eshenaur, water policy manager at MDH.

In a letter sent Thursday, EPA Administrator Michael Regan encouraged Gov. Tim Walz to maximize the impact of the water funding to address “disproportionate environmental burdens in historically underserved communities across the country.” 

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The EPA is responsible for administering the newly available funds to states, but the choice of what to do with the money is ultimately up to individual states — as long as the funding falls into the correct category as determined by the text of the new law.

Burman said right now the state doesn’t have a full picture of how widespread lead service lines are. While cities have replaced lots of water mains and service lines they own — which connect the water mains to people’s homes — there are often privately owned parts of a service line, Burman said. It’s hard for cities to know where the privately-owned lead service lines are — and difficult for home and building owners to find out. 

MDH has been promoting inventories but said they have to be done “community by community” and cost money, Burman said.

In a 2019 state report done in collaboration with the University of Minnesota, MDH estimated there were 100,000 lead service lines in the state at the time, mostly in the Twin Cities and Duluth area, by counting older homes and using other anecdotal data.

But others, including Burman, feel like the 100,000 number is a low estimate. Wefel, from the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, said there’s a lot of aging housing stock outside of the Twin Cities metro area, so she suspects lead service lines could be an issue around the state. “You drive down the main street of any of our cities, you’re going to see houses, you’re going to see businesses, you’re going to see schools for example that were built before the 1950s,” Wefel said. “There’s a good chance that the lead has never been swapped out.”

Burman said he hopes federal money can be used to make “essential” inventories of lead service lines in addition to actually replacing the lines. A new federal rule in the works is also expected to make such inventories mandatory, Burman said. (The EPA letter says states should “accelerate the development and use of lead service-line inventories.”)

There have been other obstacles to removing lead service lines. Freeman said the PFA can’t award money for privately owned portions of service lines in state bonding bills from state bonding bills — packages of publicly financed construction projects — that help fund the water infrastructure programs. 

Legislators in 2020 passed a new law that allows federal grant money in the drinking water fund to pay for removing privately-owned lead service lines. But the state has only been able to fund a small number of projects so far with that cash. Now, the influx of new money from the infrastructure bill can address lead services lines that are both publicly and privately owned.

What the money won’t do

Despite Biden’s pledge earlier this year that the infrastructure bill would get rid of lead from drinking water systems entirely, that isn’t going to happen in Minnesota, Burman said.

The cost to remove 100,000 lead service lines was estimated at roughly $500 million, Eshenaur said.

“We think that the investment is significant and it’s going to take a big bite out of this problem,” Burman said. “Will it solve it entirely? No. But it’s going to get us going and it’s going to help us also define the problem better because right now we are really running on estimates.”

The EPA letter does encourage states to use money from other sources, such as the federal American Rescue Plan stimulus, to address lead service lines.

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The infrastructure bill won’t solve Minnesota’s other water needs either. Wefel said a recent state inventory found more than $4 billion in need for wastewater infrastructure upgrades and $7 billion in drinking water upgrades in the traditional two state-run programs. There are some additional state grant programs the federal money also likely won’t fund, Wefel said

“The money that’s coming in sounds really great until you start thinking about the actual need,” Wefel said. “So this will help chip down on it, but we’re still going to need bonding and other things to tackle some of the stuff that doesn’t necessarily get covered by this bill.”

Rep. Angie Craig
Rep. Angie Craig
U.S. Rep. Angie Craig of Minnesota’s Second Congressional District, who has often advocated for clean water initiatives in Congress, was also happy with what Minnesota will receive from the infrastructure law, but said there is still more to be done.

“Minnesota’s lakes and waterways are critical for both tourism and for transporting agricultural goods,” Craig said. “They’re also the cornerstone of the natural beauty that we’re so proud of. This bill is critical to helping keep our water clean and safe for future generations.”

One item of importance for Craig that she fought for but was not included in final text of the bill is her Local Water Protection Act, which would reauthorize an EPA grant program that provides funds for states to develop and implement programs for managing nonpoint source water pollution, or pollution from diffuse sources including runoff from farms, managed forests and urban areas. The bill passed the House as a separate bill in June and is awaiting further action in the Senate.

The state has approved large amounts of money for clean water in the past. In October 2020, Minnesota lawmakers passed a $1.9 billion bonding bill that included more than $269 million for water infrastructure.

Freeman said the money used for traditional wastewater and drinking water infrastructure projects will require a 10 percent state match in the first two years and a 20 percent match in the final three years. That money would typically be approved through a bonding bill, which can be politically tough to pass because they need approval from 60 percent of the House and Senate and can get caught up in fights over unrelated issues.

Money specifically for emerging contaminants and lead service lines don’t need state matching funds, however. Freeman said that, overall, the federal cash is “a big deal” and will be “the biggest, probably, change in additional funding for decades.”