to win not to lose in water utility management
Warning: strained sports metaphor coming.
It’s late January, and the National Football League season soon reaches its climax with the Super Bowl. Both of last weekend’s conference championship games saw a high-octane home teams take the lead. By late in the game, the winning teams’ strategies shifted from trying to score to trying to run out the clock. That meant lots of prevent defense, a tactic familiar to any reasonably attentive American football fan.
Prevent defense is an ultra-conservative strategy, designed to use up time and avoid disastrous, long passing plays—the goal is not really to stop the opposing team, but rather to manage moderate losses. A coach who deploys a prevent defense isn’t so much trying to win as he is trying to avoid losing. That works fine when the team that’s ahead has a comfortable lead. But when the lead is tenuous, prevent defense courts disaster because it can allow a quarterback to lead a heroic comeback. Legendary NFL coach John Madden famously declared that: “All a prevent defense does is prevent you from winning.”
Naturally, all of this makes me think about water utility management.
Compliance as performance
A few years ago I took a water operator training class through Texas A&M Engineering Extension. The course covered principles of safe operations, along with the basic math, chemistry, and physics that operators need. What really stood out to me was how virtually everything about our training involved regulatory compliance. Treatment plant operations, distribution system maintenance, even safety protocols, were all framed in terms of following rules and avoiding violations.
Things don’t seem much different in utilities’ executive suites or board rooms. Although the rhetoric of excellence abounds in water management circles, real policy decisions and capital investments tend to follow regulatory requirements. Treatment plant upgrades happen when the EPA formulates a new rule. Sewer capacity expansions come when overflows become so frequent and egregious that regulators force a consent decree.
A water system’s strategic goal might be public health, environmental quality, citizen trust, and economic prosperity, but the utilities’ management tactics often boil down to regulatory compliance. The practical goal is not so much to achieve good things, but to avoid bad ones.
The main reason is money. One of the challenges of managing great water and sewer systems is that the price of a water is much more visible than quality of water. Customers—who are also voters—know for sure what they pay for it when they get the bill each month. Water systems are literally buried. Unless quality is egregiously awful, the only marker of a system’s quality is regulatory compliance. It’s hard for utilities to demonstrate their real value in terms of anything but monthly bills and disasters.
Utility leaders are thus stuck between a rate increase rock and a regulatory hard place. For many, “success” means avoiding rate increases and regulatory violations as long as possible. The folks who operate these essential systems don’t like running them to the brink of failure, but as one city utility executive told me: “It’s hard to get anything done without a regulatory boot to your backside.”
That’s a fundamentally negative way to think about performance. Is it any wonder that utility managers often run a prevent defense?
From loss avoidance to winning
There are some creative, dynamic, and courageous leaders in the water sector who have found ways to build achievement cultures in their utilities. But hoping for the serendipitous arrival of an exceptional leader isn’t really a strategy. What would it take to change the game? How can we get utility leaders to think about seeking success, rather than avoiding failure?
What’s needed is a comprehensive, independent, and visible system for monitoring and reporting water and sewer utility performance. What if there were monthly box scores for utilities? What if they received a report card and grade point average every year, with results reported publicly?
Aquam cum laude
This isn’t really a radical idea; Congress had transparency in mind when it required utilities systems to provide water quality reports, and the State of New Jersey was thinking about political accountability when it launched the Water Quality Accountability Act. Too often we forget that public information about water system performance also creates a credit-claiming opportunity. But reporting under those laws is complicated and in many ways opaque.
Anyone who has been to high school understands grades and GPAs. A simple, comprehensive report card would give a utility’s leaders a way to communicate progress. A new management team could set clear improvement targets and show how their efforts moved the system’s GPA from 2.7 to 3.5. Mayors and councilmembers could trumpet the improvements, helping to demonstrate the value of those unpleasant rate increases. Water systems that achieve and maintain consistent excellence across the board would qualify for the Dean’s List.
I’m a big believer in the power of measurement and incentives. If we keep score correctly, our utility leaders can do more than avoid disaster—they can play to win health, environmental quality, and economic prosperity for our communities.
Devils (and angels) in the details, Part 2
In early January the California Water Board released its draft proposal for a statewide low-income water bill assistance program. My last post summarized the path-breaking proposal and its promise for addressing affordability in the Golden State. It’s an admirable piece of work on a challenging and complex issue. The next couple posts wade into the tall policy grass in search of snakes. This one looks at the volume of water to be subsidized under the proposal.
Assistance for how much water?
An assistance program for water implies that there is some level of water consumption that is socially important, and that without assistance, water consumption would either fall below that level or force households to sacrifice other essential goods in order to pay for water. What is that level of water consumption? How much water is so important that taxpayers should subsidize it?
For California’s draft assistance proposal, the answer is 12 ccf (about 9,000 gallons) monthly per household.
Consumption in context
Not all residential water use is the same. Public policy discussions of water affordability are mostly concerned with essential needs like drinking, cooking, cleaning, and sanitation. We’re not generally concerned with the affordability of watering lawns, washing cars, or filling swimming pools.
The proposal’s 12 ccf price guideline implies 75 gallons per capita per day (gpcd) for a family of four. To give some context, California utilities average about 100 gpcd, which makes 75 gpcd seem pretty low. But it’s much higher than California’s 55 gpcd water efficiency standard (set to drop to 50 gpcd by 2030), and higher than typical water use in many California communities today. My own past affordability analyses have assumed 50 gpcd for essential use*; conservative San Francisco already averages just 42.4 gpcd for overall demand (not just essential use).†
There’s nothing magic about any of these numbers; in the end, the level of water consumption that is deserving of public subsidy is a decision to be made through the democratic process. But 12 ccf is a lot of water if the policy’s aim is to provide for essential water use. The draft proposal notes that the 12 ccf level is intended to allow for larger households and “modest amounts of outdoor irrigation.”
A perverse incentive
Why does any of this matter? Beyond the normative question of whether taxpayers ought to subsidize outdoor irrigation, a 12ccf standard may have the unintended effect of pushing water utilities toward less affordable, less conservation-oriented pricing.
Low fixed rates and low prices for essential water use make water affordable for everyone, whether or not they participate in an assistance program. Coupled with progressively higher volumetric prices, such rate structures help keep water affordable and encourage conservation. Unfortunately, many utilities have recently responded to falling average demand and revenue volatility by raising fixed rates and imposing higher costs for low-volume use. That’s good for utility revenue, but bad for affordability.
That’s where the perverse incentives creep in. A 12 ccf standard for assistance is likely to exacerbate the trend toward utilities raising fixed charges and low-volume rates. With the state’s assistance program providing aid to low-income customers, utilities can raise rates on volumes below 12 ccf with less concern for affordability impacts. That will naturally dampen the conservation incentive, as higher priced water becomes less expensive. Less obviously, higher prices for lower volumes will exacerbate affordability problems for anyone who is not enrolled in the assistance program. The draft proposal assumes an 84% participation rate; for the 16% of households who don’t participate (for whatever reason), affordability will probably get worse.
A footnote acknowledges a danger of strategic rate-setting (told you I’d get into the weeds!), observing that systems could respond to the assistance program by “shifting the rate burden to consumption levels below 12 CCF, and thus elevate the benefit for eligible households.” Apparently the concern is that utilities will game the assistance program as a means of channeling more state money to local customers. But from an affordability perspective, the more worrisome prospect is that the state’s assistance program will incentivize regressive pricing that ironically makes water less affordable for many.
This perverse incentive will exist no matter what volume is subsidized, but the greater the volume subsidized, the more perverse the incentive will be. If an assistance program is supposed to support a human right to water, then a more modest 6-8 ccf standard for support is more defensible and less susceptible to rate design gamesmanship.
*My January 2018 article on affordability measurement prompted a grouchy email from a San Francisco official who complained that 50 gpcd was an unrealistically high essential volume for evaluating affordability
†I chuckled when typing: “conservative San Francisco.” Our language is funny, sometimes.
Devils (and angels) in the details, Part 1
In 2012, to great fanfare, California governor Jerry Brown signed into law AB 685, which declared a “right to safe, clean, affordable, and accessible water adequate for human consumption, cooking, and sanitary purposes.” Last spring I observed that the crucial but unglamorous task of turning the lofty rhetoric of rights into a pragmatic program fell to the California Water Board staff under AB401.
Fast forward seven years: the Golden State now has a new governor, and he’s eagerly established himself as a champion for water access and affordability. Earlier this month the Water Board published its draft proposal for a statewide low-income water rate assistance program with an estimated annual price tag of $606 million. As with so many other areas of public policy, California is blazing a trail that other states and communities could follow. There are lots of interesting things about the proposal. Mostly, though, it’s big and it’s bold.
The proposal is complicated. At its heart is a three-tiered assistance program that would provide different discount of 20%, 35%, or 50%, depending on the combination of household income and monthly water prices at 12 ccf (about 9,000 gallons). Customers could qualify if their household income is less than 200% of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL).
The proposal is vague about how customers would enroll in the program, how often renewals would be required, who would make eligibility determinations, and who would be responsible for collecting and distributing benefits. The proposal smartly lays out several options for how the program would deliver benefits to participants. Eligible customers could get a water bill credit, an energy bill credit, a tax credit, or a direct payment via Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT).
To pay for these benefits, the proposal calls for “progressive revenue sources,” including an increased tax on income over $1 million a year and sales taxes on bottled water. Under California law, these would require a supermajority vote in the legislature and a ballot referendum, respectively.
Go big or go home
The Water Board’s proposed program is remarkable in its breadth and boldness. The federal government’s LIHEAP has provided home energy bill assistance for decades, but the proposed California plan would be the country’s first statewide water bill assistance program, promising benefits targeted at low-income water utility customers (as opposed to subsidies for the utilities that serve them). The proposal envisions reaching as many as 4.3 million households. The three-tier eligibility and benefit framework is an admirable effort to match benefit levels to customers’ needs.
The proposal is also unabashedly redistributive in its aims, using tax revenue to subsidize low-income households’ water bills. This sort of redistributive approach is important for an assistance program in a state as large and economically diverse as California. The benefit levels are modest but significant, and although they provide percentage discounts, the three tiers smartly designed with absolute cost burdens in mind.
On the other hand…
Some aspects of the proposal are worrisome. Some bits are merely (and probably intentionally) vague, others could be addressed with some minor tweaks; but others are more fundamental. In the next few posts I’ll look at that other hand.