Tackling the lead waterline challenge
If you spent some time this summer driving or biking through City Park or Riversdale, you probably hit some roadblocks and detours. Block after block of roadway was closed so that the streets, sidewalks, and water mains could be reconstructed. Another improvement made during this time was that the hundred-year-old lead water lines from the water main to people’s houses were being replaced.
In fact, Saskatoon has one of the most—if not the most—aggressive lead waterline replacement programs in the country.
With media stories circulating across the country about this very issue, this is something affecting cities and towns across the country. This is an issue that I take seriously—and that the City of Saskatoon takes seriously—and lots of progress has been made in recent years.
The water that comes from the City’s water treatment plant has one one-hundredth of the amount of lead allowed by Health Canada, but the issue arises because some homes have these lead water lines. Neighbourhoods with affected houses can be seen in this map:
Back in 2010 the City started to address this issue. I was the Councillor for Ward 6 at the time—which has many older neighbourhoods—and I heard from many people, especially parents, about their concerns. At this time, we made a decision that whenever a broken water main was being fixed when or there was some sort of work being done, that the adjacent lead water lines would be replaced. Just a couple of weeks ago, Montreal moved in this direction to make replacements mandatory as well.
During this time, the City developed a more proactive system to communicate annually with households who have lead waterlines about minimizing the risk of lead through flushing their system or using filters, and we worked to repair as many lines as we could. More information can be found on saskatoon.ca/lead.
In 2016 the City adopted an even more aggressive approach to lead water line replacements.
The City began to replace and water mains, lead water lines, roadways, and sidewalks all at once, and this is what was happening in Riversdale and City Park this summer. This approach also brought down the timelines to replace all lead water lines from 90 years to 10 years.
Doing all of this work together is the most cost-effective way forward, and it helps to retrofit older neighbourhoods for the future. In 2017, the City received one-time federal and provincial funding to kick-start the program. The City’s portion is funded by Saskatoon Water utility rates (ever wonder why they were increasing by 9% in recent years?), and the portion of the line on the owner’s property is paid for by them. The City offers different interest-free financing options to help homeowners cover these costs.
In the last three years we replaced about 2,500 lead waterlines, and there are about 2,700 remaining. We are on track to get them all replaced by 2026.
There are few other cities in North America that can see a path to lead-free waterlines. This all happened because of citizen advocacy, administrative problem solving, and City Council ensuring we make progress on this issue. This is how city building works. Yes, it costs money and yes, these are problems we have inherited, but when we work together we can make progress.