What happens when governments ask the public to report water waste?
Rainfall has been low, the mountain snowpack is thin, and Californians are bracing for another year of scarcity. But this time we've got a raft of data from the historic 2014-2017 emergency to inform drought management in 2021.*
As the drought ravaged California in 2014, the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) issued several orders restricting discretionary outdoor water use like lawn watering and car washing. A revival of these restrictions may be coming this summer, so it’s useful to look at their implementation during the last drought.
If you see something, say something
As with any regulation, enforcement of water use restrictions requires monitoring--after all, you can't enforce a rule if you don't know who is breaking it. Water management agencies sometimes use inspections or patrols to spot violations. Citizen participation can augment agencies’ monitoring capacity, and so often governments invite the general public to join in the effort. Public management researchers call this implementation strategy participatory surveillance.
Participatory surveillance became part of the Golden State’s water conservation regulatory regime during the 2014-2017 drought, as state and local agencies provided telephone hotlines and websites for the public to report water waste anonymously. California communities responded with gusto: over the 32-month emergency, water utilities logged more than 485,000 water waste reports. In a new Water Resources Research paper, Youlang Zhang, David Switzer, and I analyzed water waste reporting across 408 water systems during the 2014-2017 emergency—with important implications for 2021 and beyond.
What kinds of communities get the most water waste reports?
We marshaled a variety of data to explore the factors correlated with water waste reporting, measured as monthly reports per thousand population. Unsurprisingly, the drought severity and the strictness of local water restrictions were among the strongest predictors of complaints: as the drought worsened and restrictions tightened, reports of water waste increased. But our analysis also identified significant social, institutional, and political correlates of reporting.
Education. Water waste reports correlated positively with the share of a community’s population with a college degree—even after adjusting for income, poverty, and racial/ethnic composition. A more educated public, it seems, generates more water waste complaints:
Institutional structure. A clear ordered relationship between utility ownership/organization and water waste reports emerged in the data: all else equal, municipal utilities got the most participation, followed by special districts, with investor-owned utilities getting the lowest participation:
We think that these disparities mainly have to do with familiarity. Municipalities are in most situations far more visible to the public than special district governments and investor-owned systems, and so garner greater media attention and citizen participation.
Party competition. We expected higher voter turnout to correlate with greater water waste reporting, but our analysis didn’t find any significant relationship between the two. However, we found that the composition of the local electorate predicted participatory surveillance in a surprising way: water waste reporting was higher in communities where the electorate was closely divided between Democrats and Republicans.
We measured partisan competition as one minus the local difference between registered Democrats and Republicans, divided by total registered voters.** Are hardcore partisans tattling on their opposition party neighbors? Maybe, but we suspect that heightened party competition simply indicates a more civically engaged public.
Does water waste reporting lead to greater conservation?
We also analyzed the correlation between water waste complaints and conservation outcomes, using the SWRCB’s official measure of conservation (current water use compared with the same month in pre-drought 2013). Yes, waste complaints positively correlated with subsequent water conservation. Substantively, one more complaint per thousand persons predicts a 0.56% increase in monthly water conservation. This effect is small in percentage terms, but represents a great deal of water in a state as big as California: one more complaint per thousand persons per month for each utility would have resulted in 32 billion gallons more water saved during the emergency—enough supply San Francisco for 16 months.
So is participatory surveillance a good idea for water utilities?
With the data on hand we can’t say for sure that participatory surveillance caused the conservation we see. But the results are consistent with the idea that public engagement expands monitoring capacity and suggests that participatory surveillance can enhance the effectiveness of urban water restrictions. More generally, inviting the public to report maintenance or water quality problems could be a useful way to put more “eyes on the street” and help water utilities perform better.
But it’s also clear that participatory surveillance is a social phenomenon, so water waste reporting is likely to work better in some places than others. Authorities looking to manage drought in California and elsewhere should bear in mind that demographic, institutional, and political contexts can condition the effects of public reporting strategies.
In deputizing the masses, participatory surveillance also changes relationships between citizens, and so could deepen social divisions when people report each other for breaking the rules. Whether the promise of participatory surveillance as a way to strengthen water restrictions justifies its possibly divisive social side-effects is a harder, more fundamental question.
**If a utility service area was entirely dominated by one party (i.e., 100% of registrations), then the value of the party competition index would be zero. If the area was evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans (50% Dem, 50% GOP), the value of this party competition index would be one.
On the limits of means-tested assistance programs for water & sewer
**Warning: sports metaphor ahead**
Like hitting a baseball, running a means-tested assistance program is hard.
Congress is betting on customer assistance programs (CAPs) as the way to tackle water and sewer affordability. Hot on the heels of the $638 million approved in the December COVID relief bill, Congress doubled down with another $500 million on the program earlier this month. When the first assistance bill passed, I observed that it said little about how the program was to be administered. The latest bill provides even less guidance—fewer than 250 words;* federal and state agencies will likely need several months of rulemaking before the program delivers a dime to customers.
In the end, implementation for low-income bill assistance will fall to the thousands of utilities that provide water and sewer service across the U.S. I continue to receive frequent queries from utility managers who want to address affordability effectively and are exasperated because their CAPs remain under-enrolled. One executive team I spoke with last month was incredulous that their utility lost a huge chunk of CARES funds because they couldn’t get customers to participate in a program that would have forgiven hundreds or thousands of dollars in water/sewer debt. Over and over again, I hear from utility leaders frustrated that their CAPs reach so few qualified customers. “What are we doing wrong?” they ask. “How can we do better?”
Decades of research on means-tested government assistance programs give us good reasons to temper our expectations about what water/sewer CAPs can accomplish. Means-tested programs are unlikely to reach more than a small fraction of the qualified customers--even if utilities do everything right.
Major League Baseball’s season starts this week, and baseball is on my mind. According to the rules, every player can get a hit every time he comes to bat, and so in theory a team can score an infinite number of runs and win by out-hitting its opponents. In reality, however, Major League batters hit in only about 25% of their at-bats. All-star players are better: they might hit around 30% of the time. Hall-of-Fame hitters—the greatest of all time—typically boast career batting averages between .300 and .350. Fewer than 30 players ever hit better than .400 for a season, and the last to do it was Ted Williams in 1941.
So the very best baseball players in the world fail between 60 and 70 percent of the time. That’s because hitting a baseball is difficult. It is nearly universally accepted among American sports fans that hitting a baseball is the hardest thing to do in all of sports. You can be supremely talented, train rigorously, study meticulously, and still fail 70% of the time.
In practice, CAPs reach only small percentage of eligible customers. That’s because administering a means-tested assistance program is hard. Consider what’s involved in making a CAP work:
- Advertising & outreach. Customers can only participate in a CAP if they know it exists, and so utilities have to educate their customers with advertising and outreach activities. Some customers won’t get the message due to language barriers or because they won’t bother to read or listen to appeals.
- Weighing participation. Once they know about a CAP, customers will evaluate their own eligibility and weigh the procedural costs of applying against their expected benefits. Some customers will decide that participation is not worth the time needed to apply – especially if they will need to take the bus or arrange for childcare in order to apply.
- Trust & cooperation. Some customers won’t apply because they don’t trust the government and don’t want to share their income, household size, or other personal information with the utility. Some won’t apply because they refuse to accept assistance as a matter of principle or pride.
- Certification & audit. Once customers do apply, utility staff or third-party administrators must certify their eligibility; some won’t qualify. Customers who ultimately enroll will have to re-apply periodically to maintain their CAP eligibility. Occasional audits will identify participants who shouldn’t have qualified; those customers will be kicked out of the program. Mistakes and fraud will occur sometimes.
Is it any wonder that few customers wind up enrolling in CAPs?
Patterns of participation
We really don’t know what helps or hurts water/sewer CAP participation because there has never been a rigorous, systematic study of CAP design, implementation or impact.** Participation rates in the handful of utilities I’ve worked with range from below 5% to more than 70% of eligible customers, but most see participation well below 30%. Philadelphia’s celebrated TAP program gets about 25% participation.
These lackluster figures are not surprising to those who study means-tested public assistance programs in the U.S.. Consider participation in these federal assistance programs:
- SNAP (formerly known as Food Stamps): 84% participation.
- TANF (formerly AFDC or “welfare”): 47%.
- Social Security Disability Insurance: 45%.
- Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP): 16%.
The last of these is the most relevant to water/sewer utilities, as LIHEAP is the model for the new federal water bill assistance program. SNAP, TANF, and SSDI provide much greater benefits than LIHEAP—hundreds to more than a thousand dollars monthly. These are decades-old, professionally administered programs, and still they struggle with enrollment. Frankly, it’s a wonder that any water utility manages to achieve participation of 30% or more. Like a baseball player, a utility that manages to bat above .300 is probably an all-star.
What to do?
None of this means that CAPs are useless; these programs can be very important for those who receive benefit But nobody really knows what works and what doesn’t with water/sewer CAPs, so federal and state agencies should resist dictating CAP design and implementation tactics. Instead, utilities should be encouraged to try lots of approaches, experiment, and measure and report outcomes. For example, utilities could try multiple CAP advertising and outreach methods targeted at random to different neighborhoods or households, and then measure which (if any) correlate with participation. Utilities can try different forms, enrollment, and renewal procedures. These measures should be isolated to the extent possible in order help gauge how much procedural changed affects participation. Utility managers should resist the urge to simply imitate what other communities have done without evidence that their measures worked.
Most of all, utility managers and policymakers from Capitol Hill to City Hall should be sober in their expectations about what CAPs can accomplish in pursuit of affordable water. Utilities can do everything right and still reach fewer than half of the customers who need help. A baseball team can’t win with hitting alone—pitching, fielding, and baserunning are just as important.† Just so, meeting the affordability challenge will require a comprehensive strategy that includes economies of scale, technology, rate design, and resource efficiency alongside means-tested CAPs.
*Happily missing from the new bill is a program name that generated the hideous acronym LIHDWWEAP. Hooray!
**Frequent readers will recognize this common refrain. A new article in WIREs Water reviews research on policy strategies for water affordability and shares my basic outlook on the state of the science: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
†Ted Williams’ 1941 Boston Red Sox led the American League in batting with a team average .283, but finished 17 games behind the New York Yankees. The Yankees’ balanced hitting, pitching, and defense led them to an AL Pennant and World Series victory that year—a lesson to baseball and utility managers alike.
When utility regulation fails, democracy fails
The utility failures in the Lone Star State last week cascaded into a disaster when extreme weather hit an isolated electrical grid.* But more than a natural or engineering catastrophe, the disaster that unfolded in Texas was a regulatory failure. The institutions that govern utilities did not function as they should, and the resulting debacle was literally deadly. That institutional failure will reverberate in political memory long after electricity and water are restored; where essential services like energy and water are concerned, regulatory failure undermines legitimacy of government itself.
Utility regulation & the Texas disaster
With their high fixed costs, significant barriers to entry, and huge economies of scale, utilities are natural monopolies. The trouble with monopolies is that they are not subject to market competition, and so producers can get away with selling lousy products and charging absurdly high prices. To get around this problem, states rely on Public Utilities Commissions (PUCs) to ensure quality, reliability, and fair pricing for utilities. Commissioners and their staffs of professional engineers, economists, lawyers, and other experts act as checks against monopoly abuses by setting rules for utility service quality and limiting pricing.
The disaster in Texas last week is a vivid illustration of what can happen when regulators shirk that responsibility. The PUC considered strengthening weatherization rules for energy producers following cold weather events over the past decade. But energy producers resisted weatherization rules due to compliance costs, and regulators ultimately did not force producers to weatherize adequately. The PUC’s timidity might be a case of “regulatory capture,” but it also could be that the Commissioners simply decided that weatherproofing wasn’t a high priority. The state’s regulatory regime also fostered incentives that emphasized short-run pricing over system resilience. These decisions may have led to lower overall energy prices in the Lone Star State**, but they also left the state’s energy grid less resilient and more vulnerable to extreme winter weather.
When an arctic blast hit, energy production faltered. Energy failures cascaded into water system failures, as pipes froze and pumps and treatment systems failed. More than a week after the cold snap hit, many Texas communities are still struggling to get water systems functioning properly, to say nothing of the countless homeowners whose pipes burst as temperatures plunged. None of these problems was unforeseeable or beyond engineers’ ability to manager; they were all preventable.
Water, energy, and legitimacy
The legitimacy of any government rests on its ability to secure its people’s basic needs—and it doesn’t get any more basic than a warm home and safe drinking water. There is more at stake in utility regulation than efficient investment or fair pricing: basic services are cornerstones of political legitimacy.A few years ago, I worked with Texas A&M’s ISTPP on a national public opinion survey that asked standard questions about trust in government, and later about people’s experiences with tap water. We found that people who experience bad-tasting, dirty, or low-pressure tap water service were significantly less trusting of their local government—even after adjusting for partisanship, gender, race, ethnicity, age, income, and home ownership:
These findings are hardly surprising, but underscore just how central water is to the health of the Republic. When basic services fail, citizens understandably lose faith in the officials responsible for protecting the public. In that sense, the PUCs and other obscure technocratic agencies that regulate basic services are bulwarks of democracy. In a moment when mistrust of government is rampant and the nation’s political fabric is frayed, getting basic services right is more important than ever.†
*I moved to Madison from Houston six months ago. Who would have guessed that my first winter in Wisconsin would have been easier to manage?
**Maybe. Kind of. Energy pricing is complicated.
†I just completed a book manuscript with Samantha Zuhlke & David Switzer that uses Americans’ drinking water choices to explore the ways that basic services shape consumer behavior and citizen trust in government; the graph in this post is a sneak preview. More on that project in the months ahead...