Head of Milwaukee Water Utility Leaves as City Grapples with Lead Pipes

Feb 17, 2017

Today is Carrie Lewis’ last day on the job she has held for 20 years.

She arrived, not long after one crisis surfaced, and she’s leaving, as Milwaukee Water Works is addressing another - figuring out how to replace what could be more than 80,000 lead pipes that carry water into city homes.

Lewis came to town in 1995, two years after Milwaukee’s devastating cryptosporidium outbreak. It sickened hundreds of thousands of water drinkers, and dozens, many of whom had compromised immune systems, died.

Lewis became Milwaukee Water Works' first water quality manager.

“Who could say no to a water quality manager after a cryptosporidium outbreak? We got to change so many things and put so many improvements in and it was really gratifying I think for everybody,” she said.

Lewis helped design a treatment regime to safeguard Milwaukee from future microscopic parasites.

Afterward, she and city leaders began touting the city’s drinking water as among the best in the country.

If someone wants to do an audit...tell me what you want to know, or tell my successor what you want to know and we will bring up your level of confidence, I am certain.

Yet last year, community confidence eroded as people learned that their lead water pipes threaten the health and development of children.

Since then, Lewis has attended public meetings, to spread the word and encourage people living in older homes to install water filters.

“That community interaction, I have to tell you, was pushing the boundaries of my comfort zone a little bit, but…..it’s really wonderful to be out there. They were so engaged and had so many questions that we talked with them for 45 minutes about lead service lines,” the superintendent added ,”There seems to be a fear that all of these lead service lines are going to be replaced next week and everybody is going to have to pay for that.”

The plan she helped craft for Milwaukee calls for crews, this year, to replace lead lines, as they rupture – plus those hooked to day care centers. However, replacement of what could add up to 80,000 more will roll out in baby steps.

“Next year we have 100 services, not one hundred projects but water main projects with 100 lead services and then the year after, it’s 400,” she said.

Photo taken earlier this week as Carrie Lewis prepared her Milwaukee Water Works office for next superintendent.
Credit Susan Bence

Lewis pooh-poohs the notion she’s eager to abandon Milwaukee’s lead lateral headaches.

"There is, I was told there is a rumor among some staff at the water works that something really bad is coming and I’m jumping ship before that happens. Not true – not, not, not true. The reason I’m moving is because this is a really wonderful job opportunity,” she said.

Lewis says she’ll be replacing the much-beloved general manager of the water utility in Portland, Maine.

How many lead laterals does it have? Zero.