The Garden State has quietly enacted a law that could transform water infrastructure in America.
Signed during Governor Christie’s waning days in office, New Jersey’s 2017 Water Quality Accountability Act (WQAA) introduced a series regulations requiring local water utilities to develop asset management plans, report on infrastructure conditions, and reinvestment adequately in their systems. For outsiders to the water sector, the WQAA might seem like a set of narrow, technocratic rules. But it’s really much, much more—not because of the rules themselves, but because the data that the rules will generate can change the way that people think about the crucial but unseen systems that sustain American cities.
A renaissance artifact in a German village helps explain why.
Drinking water and credit claiming
While Governor Christie was signing the WQAA, my wife and I were sightseeing in Germany. There we visited Wertheim, a small town nestled on the banks of a river. Right in the village square stands the Engelsbrunnen, or “Angel’s Well.” The village has been there since the 8th century, but this well was constructed in 1574. The well’s construction transformed life in the village—before the well was built, villagers had to walk 100 yards down to the river to fetch water.
But the really interesting thing about this well is the structure that surrounds it. This wasn’t just a utilitarian bit of public works—it was, and remains, a jewel at the heart of the village. It’s named for the twin angel sculpture at the top of the structure, but what really stands out is the sculpture in front, at eye-level:
That is the mayor of Wertheim in 1574. He didn’t just want his people to have water, he wanted them to know who delivered it. And every day, when the villagers filled their pails of water, they’d do so standing face to face with the image of the mayor who built it. For Wertheim, the well was a major improvement in quality-of-life. For the Mayor, the Engelsbrunnen was what political scientists call a credit-claiming opportunity.
Politicians then, like politicians now, like to claim credit for good things. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, modern drinking water systems provided politicians with ample credit-claiming opportunities. And with good reason! Drinking water systems are amazing! They are the everyday miracles of the modern age.
Blame avoidance and infrastructure neglect
Unfortunately the politics of American drinking water have changed. For decades Americans have had the luxury of taking drinking water for granted. Maintaining or upgrading drinking water systems doesn’t offer the same kind of credit-claiming opportunity as building them.
When the public takes water for granted, leaders fear anger over rate increases, which they must balance against the fear of a disaster. As National Association of Water Companies CEO Rob Powelson put it: “No president or governor wants to have a Flint Water Crisis on their hands.”
That’s what political scientists call blame avoidance.
The thing is, blame-avoidance isn’t a very good motivator for infrastructure investment. If my political goal is to avoid blame for a disaster, then my tradeoff is tax or rate increases today vs. the risk of disaster on my watch. Rate increases today are immediately visible and unpopular; to politicians, the risk of disaster can feel remote—my successor’s problem, not mine.
From fear of failure to expectation of excellence
That’s where New Jersey’s WQAA has the chance to transform the politics of drinking water. With the data generated under this new law, researchers will be able to trace the full nexus of the relationships between costs, water quality, system performance, and capital reinvestment. We’ll be able to show how to maintain affordability while also maintaining public health and economic prosperity.
But most importantly, all that analysis can make water infrastructure a credit-claiming opportunity again. We’ll be able to quantify the health and environmental benefits that come from water infrastructure, and so give leaders a reason to brag about their investments in these critical systems.
My only gripe with the WQAA is its name: the word “accountability” implies a threat of punishment for failure, rather than opportunity for success. With due respect to the NJ legislature I’d have preferred a different name: the Water Quality Accountability Achievement Act. Water system maintenance, reinvestment, and public reporting on performance shouldn’t be feared as a cause of punishment, but embraced as a chance to celebrate excellence.
Hats off to New Jersey’s water leaders for seizing this moment and blazing a promising trail. New Jersey’s WQAA gives water sector leaders the chance to make this moment an inflection point: the time when water stopped being an afterthought and became a core policy concern again; when the water sector turned away from fear of failure and back to visionary achievement.
During California’s recent drought, the utilities that own their supply sources conserved more than the those that purchase water from wholesale suppliers
-Warning: this post contains hardcore wonkery-
A while ago I blogged about my ongoing work with Youlang Zhang and David Switzer on water conservation in California. The first of our studies is now published at Policy Studies Journal; more are on the way. There we saw that financial incentives and institutional politics led to the surprising result that private, for-profit companies out-conserved local government utilities during a recent drought.
But another interesting pattern emerged from that study: a significant difference in conservation between utilities that draw their water supplies from wholesale sources.
Where utilities get their water
The drinking water utilities that serve American communities get their water in one of three ways*:
1) Pumping groundwater from wells that tap underground aquifers;
2) Drawing surface water from lakes and rivers; or
3) Purchasing water from a wholesale water utility.
In the first two cases, local utilities own wells, surface water intakes, and treatment plants. About 29% of American utilities fall in the third category, getting their water through wholesalers. In these cases, the local utility owns a distribution and/or storage system, but the supply works and perhaps the treatment facilities belong to another utility. Sometimes these wholesale utilities have retail customers of their own, sometimes they are purely wholesale suppliers.
In California, more than a third (36%) of water systems get at least part of their water from a wholesale supplier. A handful of very large wholesale water suppliers like Metropolitan Water District, San Diego County Water Authority, and Santa Clara Valley Water District manage major supply works, and then sell water to cities, special districts, and investor-owned retail water utilities.
Spreading the risk
A major advantage of big wholesale water utilities is that they allow a region’s water supply to be managed holistically and comprehensively. Rather than individual communities competing and depleting water supplies, regional wholesalers can plan and balance water supply needs. From the local perspective, wholesale utilities help diversify supply and so guard against catastrophic supply shortages. They also allow communities across a region to pool their capital for greater efficiency. Together these features spread both supply risk and financial risk across many local utilities.
Sales agreements between retails and wholesalers vary widely across the country, so generalizing is difficult. But one common feature of wholesale contracts is the take-or-pay provision. Under take-or-pay arrangements, the wholesaler agrees to supply and the retailer agrees to purchase a fixed volume of water over a given period of time for a given price. If retail demand exceeds the contract volume, the retailer pays for more on a volumetric basis. If retailer demand falls short of the contracted volume, the take-or-pay provision requires the retailer to pay the wholesaler anyway, as if it had used the entire contract volume.†
In other words, under take-or-pay contracts, the retailer pays the wholesaler the same amount, even if the retailer uses far less water than the contracted volume.
Wholesale supply & the logic of conservation
Got all that? Still with me?
Here’s what it all means for conservation. Wholesale supply arrangements reduce supply risk and long-term financial risk to local utilities. Take-or-pay contracts make a lot of sense for long-term stability for supply systems that have high fixed costs.
But in the short-term, these wholesale arrangements create disincentives for retail conservation during a drought. Under wholesale agreements, short-term supply risk from drought is shifted from the local utility to the wholesaler: the wholesaler is legally responsible for maintaining adequate supply. Meanwhile, fixed take-or-pay contracts leave retailers on the hook for the same amount no matter how much water their customers actually buy. The retailer may suffer significant sales declines if it rains all summer, or if the state imposes drought restrictions, but the retailer still has to pay the wholesaler as if demand was normal.
Together, these factors create structural disincentives for emergency conservation for retail utilities under wholesale agreements.
Does diluting risk also dilute conservation? As I explained in an earlier post, the recent drought in California prompted that state to impose conservation rules on retail water utilities from June 2015-May 2016. Each utility was assigned a specific conservation target and the state recorded overall conservation by each utility.
Did utilities that operate under wholesale supply arrangements perform differently from utilities that own their own supplies?
Our analysis of data from the drought mandate period is pretty striking. After accounting for a host of organizational and environmental conditions, we found that water systems that rely on wholesale water supplies were 42% less likely to meet state conservation standards, compared with systems that own their own supplies.
We also found that, after accounting for other factors, utilities under wholesale contracts conserved an average of 2.6% less each month relative to systems that use their own wells or surface water sources. In a state as large as California, this small percentage difference equates to tens of billions of gallons.
Follow the money
These patterns don’t prove that wholesale contracts caused California utilities to slack on conservation. But the data certainly align with the short-term incentives that wholesale supply arrangements create, and there aren’t other obvious reasons for the disparity. The lesson here is to pay close attention to wholesale contracts when setting conservation rules, so that conservation and financial incentives work in concert.
*Technically there are other sources, too—desalination and water reuse, for example–but they’re so rare that they don’t allow for much meaningful analysis.
†”Take-or-pay” is a weird phrase, since there’s really no “or” to the arrangement. Seems like “fixed fee” is a more accurate label, but then I’m not a lawyer.
Another way in which it’s tough to be poor
Drinking water utilities are great, but they aren’t perfect. Sometimes there are problems. Do those problems occur randomly? Or are there observable patterns in the water service problems?
Recently I’ve been posting about some findings from a Texas A&M Institute for Science, Technology & Public Policy (ISTPP) national public opinion survey. The survey’s carefully-designed sample of nearly 2,000 individuals is representative of the US population, and so offers an extraordinary look at public perceptions about water service. Earlier posts reported on attitudinal differences between water professionals and the general public, and on the ways that gender predicts opinion on water issues. I’m continuing to write up interesting findings from the ISTPP survey as time allows.
Today I’m looking at income.
Water service problems
The ISTPP survey asked respondents to say whether they had experienced each of the following problems with their drinking water with a simple yes/no answer:
- The water does not taste good (31.5% yes)
- The water is cloudy or dirty (19.5%)
- Water pressure is low (29.2%)
- The water causes sickness (3.8%)
- Water billing or payment problems (10.2%)
Importantly, this survey captures perceived water service problems, not actual problems—we don’t know that any given respondent actually experienced low water pressure, for example. We only know whether a respondent thinks (s)he experienced a problem. Likewise, we don’t know whether water actually caused sickness, only whether the respondent believes that it did. Fortunately, the large majority of respondents said “no” to all of these.
But the “yes” responses didn’t happen by chance. I fitted logistic regression models to identify correlates of water service experiences using the demographic variables in the ISTPP survey, such as race, ethnicity, age, urban/rural location, region, and income. These models estimate the likelihood of experiencing each of the five service problems.
A troubling pattern
The demographic correlates of water service problems vary, but across all five items, household income was the single strongest and most consistent predictor of water service problems. The graph below shows the likelihood of reporting that water billing problems at various income levels, with all else held equal (vertical spikes represent 95% confidence intervals):
At a $20,000 household income, there is a 13% chance of reporting billing problems. At $50,000, the likelihood is to about 9%; at $100,000 the likelihood drops to about 8%. That all makes some sense; we’d generally expect billing problems to correlate with income.
But the same pattern emerges for other kinds of water service problems, too. Here is the likelihood of reporting that water tastes bad at various income levels, again with other variables held constant:
At a $20,000 household income, there is a 37% chance of reporting bad-tasting tap water. At $50,000, the likelihood is to about 30%; at $100,000 the likelihood drops to about 25%.
Here’s the likelihood of experiencing cloudy or dirty water by household income:
Here’s the likelihood of reporting low water pressure by income:
And finally, here’s the likelihood of reporting that water caused illness by income:
Taken together, this is a sobering picture.* There is a clear relationship between income and the way that Americans experience their drinking water utility service. These results resonate with recent research finding a positive relationship between tap water consumption and income, with attendant implications for public health.
*In a future post I’ll look at race and drinking water experience; the picture won’t be much prettier.