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Get the Lead Out!

Authored by Richard Straut | May 23, 2022

New Regulations to Eliminate Lead in Drinking Water

Big changes related to requirements for controlling lead in our drinking water system are here that are described by drinking water experts as complex and costly. Those descriptions are right, but don’t let that scare you off, because the time to begin work is now! Check out our free LCRR guide to get started.

Why is controlling lead in drinking water important? According to a Mayo Clinic publication¹, lead poisoning occurs when lead builds up in the body over time and can manifest in symptoms such as developmental delays and learning impediment in young children, premature and low birth weight newborns, high blood pressure and difficulty concentrating in adults, as well as other symptoms. While lead-based paint continues to be a primary source of lead exposure, drinking water can also be a source, and since lead builds up in the body, no amount of lead exposure is considered safe.

Regulation aimed at reducing American’s exposure to lead exposure began nearly half a century ago and has resulted in substantial reduction of lead exposure nationwide. Examples include phasing out the use of lead in gasoline, paint and plumbing materials. The Lead and Copper Rule (LCR), which was promulgated by the USEPA in 1991, targeted reduction of lead exposure in drinking water. All of the efforts to reduce exposure so far have resulted in a decline of blood lead levels nationwide of 94% since the late 1970s², proving that the nation has made tremendous gains in reducing lead exposure.

Exposure to lead from drinking water, however, is a legacy problem. While new construction of our water systems and plumbing systems are lead-free, many of our water mains, service laterals and customer plumbing systems predate the lead ban and continue to be a potential source of exposure. The Lead and Copper Rule of 1991 was geared toward identifying systems were lead levels at the tap exceeded an “Action Level” of 15 parts per billion (ppb), and when levels exceeded the Action Level, implementing corrosion control treatment of the water to inhibit dissolution of lead and copper from the pipes. This typically involved adjusting the water chemistry such that it is less corrosive, or including an additive to the water that would form a protective burier on the interior of the piping, thereby inhibiting leaching of lead and copper from the pipe material. Increased monitoring and public education were also triggered. In cases where the treatment couldn’t reduce lead concentrations below the Action Level, lead service line replacements were to be undertaken.

The EPA determined that “despite this progress, there is a compelling need to modernize and improve the rule by strengthening its public health protections and clarifying its implementation requirements to make it more effective and more readily enforceable³.”  Essentially, it was determined that the LCR provided too much discretion in its implementation to adequately protect the public from lead exposure in drinking water systems. That brings us to the new rule – the Lead and Copper Rule Revisions (LCRR) – which became effective December 16, 2021.

What is changing?

The new EPA rule is intended to strengthen public health protection through several more stringent requirements and proactive approaches to eliminating lead in water systems including customer plumbing. Here is a summary of impactful changes of the LCRR² ⁴:

  • New Trigger Level: The LCRR establishes an new “Trigger Level” of 10 ppb (lower than the Action Level of 15 ppb) that, if exceeded, will require water systems to take actions regarding water corrosion control treatment, lead level monitoring and public notification / education. The prior rule had no such Trigger Level. The “Action Level” of 15 ppb from the prior LCR is still operative, requiring an even higher level of action including public notification and education, water quality monitoring, corrosion control treatment and lead service line replacement. Both the Trigger Level and the Action Level are based on the 90th percentile of all of the samples taken, which means that if at least 90% of the samples test below the Trigger Level or the Action Level, then the water system has not exceeded that particular level.

  • Sampling procedures: The rule specifically defines tap water sampling requirements and procedures, and prioritization of sampling sites. The intent is to capture more representative samples of water from lead service lines (i.e. lead goosenecks at the service connection which were common installations many years ago), and to better target sampling of the residences with lead service lines. It is expected that customers volunteering to conduct sampling will require training on proper sampling techniques.

  • Monitoring schools and day care facilities: The water system will be required to sample for lead at the tap at all schools and childcare facilities that it supplies water to. This used to be the responsibility of the school.

  • Lead service inventory: Water systems must prepare a lead service line inventory by October 16, 2024, update it annually and make it available to the public. This will require identifying lead service material both inside and outside the building. The fact that the municipality doesn’t own the service line on private property or beyond the curb box is irrelevant – the water system must include the private portion of the service in its inventory. For those services that are of unknown material, they are considered to be lead for the purposes of determining replacement requirements should the Trigger Level or Action Level be exceeded.

  • Lead service line replacement plan: Water systems must prepare plans for lead service line replacements. Exceeding the Trigger Level will require replacement at a predetermined rate, and exceedance of the Action Level will require replacement of lead service lines at a rate of 3% per year until testing shows the Action Level has not been exceeded in four consecutive 6-month periods (2 years). If the State determines it feasible, the water system may be required to replace service lines at a higher rate than 3%.

  • Relief for small systems: if a system serving fewer than 10,000 people exceed a Trigger Level but not an Action Level, the system must collect and assess water quality data and select from several compliance options that it will commit to implementing if the Action Level is exceeded. The options include optimizing corrosion control treatment to achieve compliance, installing and maintaining point-of-use treatment systems (in-house filtration), or replacing all lead service lines within 15 years.

  • Replacement of customer-owned lead service line: While the municipality or water system is not required to pay for replacement of the customer-owned portion of lead service lines, they are required to offer to replace the line at the customer’s expense. If a customer decides to replace their portion of a lead service line, the water system must replace their own portion within 45 days. An extension may be sought from the Health Department if this is not feasible (i.e. winter conditions prevent replacement).
  • Public notification and education: Public notification and education requirements associated with this rule are extensive, and many require quick turn-around. Template educational materials and notifications should be developed, and “if-then” standard operating procedures developed to ensure correct and timely communications.

  • Find and fix: Even if the water system doesn’t exceed the Action Level in over 10% of its samples, when an individual property is found to have exceeded 15 ppb of lead, the water system must notify the customer of the testing result within 24 hours. Additional testing and analysis is then required to determine if the elevated lead level can be mitigated through treatment or operational changes in the water system, or if it is wholly caused lead in the plumbing. If it is determined to be caused by the customer’s plumbing, the water system is to recommend to the customer to replace the lead service/plumbing.

  • Provide pitcher filters: Water systems are required to provide customers with pitchers that have lead-removing filters and a six-month supply of replacement filters in situations where the customer is exposed to elevated lead levels in the drinking water, such as when lead service lines to the residence are being replaced.

  • Requirement to replace lead that is encountered: Any time a lead service line or component is encountered in the course of work – for example, during repair of a water main break – the lead service line or component must be replaced. The property serviced then must be provided a filter pitcher and replacement filters.

Compliance with the LCRR will be time-consuming and require consequential financial resources. Municipalities that own and operate public water systems would be wise to begin preparing now for compliance with the rule because there is a lot to do in the next few years. Here are some suggestions to get started:

  • Assign a responsible person in your water system to become familiar with all of the requirements of the LCRR. The New York Section American Water Works Association had developed a webinar series on the LCRR and is a great resource for water system operators and managers.

  • Evaluate your lead service line inventory immediately and develop a plan to gather as much information as possible to improve the inventory by October 16, 2024.

  • Begin developing plans for corrosion control treatment or, if you already have treatment, optimization of that treatment approach.

  • Begin developing an education and outreach plan including template materials.

  • Begin developing a plan to replace lead service lines.

  • Evaluate staffing needs to implement this plan. It is quite possible that increased staffing will be required to implement the requirements of the LCRR.

  • Begin evaluating the cost of compliance with all of these new requirements and consider water rate adjustments accordingly.

Download our free LCRR guide here. For more information on the LCRR and how to get your community ready, please contact Rich Straut or Chris Lawton.



(1) Mayo Clinic, Lead Poisoning, <a href=”https:”” diseases-conditions=”” lead-poisoning=”” symptoms-causes=”” syc-20354717″=””></a href=”https:>

(2) Congressional Research Service, Addressing Lead in Drinking Water: The Lead and Copper Rule Revisions (LCRR) R46794, Elena H. Humphreys, June 22, 2021.

(3) U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), National Primary Drinking Water Regulations: Lead and Copper Rule Revisions, 86 Federal Register 4198-4200, January 15, 2021

(4) New York Section American Water Works Association (NYSAWWA), Lead and Copper Rule Revisions 5-Part Webinar Series, David Rowley, P.E. et. al., 2021 and 2022

Water Resources

This article is from members of the Water Resources Practice Area.

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