The St. Paul City Council on Wednesday approved spending $4 million in American Rescue Plan dollars to help homeowners replace lead water pipes on their property.

City officials say it's just the beginning of what they expect to be a larger, decade-long effort to get all the lead out of St. Paul's pipes.

Council Member Chris Tolbert said the money, some of which will be used as grants to offset homeowners' costs in replacing lead water pipes on their property, "will allow us to kick off [a larger plan] this summer."

Tolbert, who represents the city's Highland Park and Macalester-Groveland neighborhoods, has been leading the effort to make lead water line replacement a priority in St. Paul. As many as 26,600 St. Paul homes — 20 to 25% of residential customers — may have lead water service pipes, according to St. Paul Regional Water Services. Replacing them could cost an estimated $220 million.

At the February meeting of the city's Board of Water Commissioners, water services officials presented a 10-year plan that would remove and replace all lead water pipes, whether in the public right of way or on private property.

"I look at this as a pilot, of sorts, to troubleshoot what our issues [moving forward] are going to be," Tolbert said. "It's the start of something big."

City officials expect to launch a more comprehensive plan in 2023, when an expected $15 billion in federal infrastructure funding targeting lead pipe removal begins flowing to the states. Patrick Shea, general manager of St. Paul Regional Water Services, said Minnesota expects to receive about $43 million a year for five years.

"St. Paul is hoping to get a piece of that," Shea said.

St. Paul spends $2 million to $3 million per year to replace lead water pipes in the public right of way during street reconstruction projects. At that rate, it will take about 36 years to replace just the public portion of lead pipe, according to the Enhanced Lead Service Line Replacement Plan presented to water commissioners in February.

It does nothing to replace lead pipes that run from under the sidewalk to the house — an estimated 20,000 properties.

To speed up that timeline to just a decade, officials said, will cost an estimated $82 million for pipes in the right of way and another $141 million for pipes on private property. But how to fund it?

The plan proposes to replace private lines at no cost to customers within 100 designated zones, while giving grants of up to $2,500 to customers outside those zones. An estimated $12.5 million a year in infrastructure funding would be used.

A rate increase is also expected to be used to pay for it. Rates could go up 6% - 8% over the next 10 years to cover public pipe replacements and 20% if public funds are used for private replacements. That, however, requires changes to current law.

A more detailed plan is expected to be kicked off in the next few weeks.

Tolbert said the Legislature is also considering the issue. A comprehensive plan to enhance public health needs a comprehensive funding plan, he said.

"We are starting a process to get these pipes out," he said. "Other communities need to do this. It is a really important public health issue. Getting lead pipes out will improve health, and lower health care costs."

The city of St. Paul has set up a map that allows property owners to look up their homes to see if they have lead water pipes. Residents interested in more information are asked to call 651-266-6350.