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.
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.
Why rate structures, not assistance programs, offer the most promising path to water affordability
When discussions of water and sewer affordability turn to policy solutions, they typically focus on Customer Assistance Programs (CAPs). But a focus on CAPs bypasses a much more direct, effective, and efficient means of improving affordability: rate design. To see what I mean, consider the way we combat infectious diseases.
Therapy vs Inoculation
Clinical therapy and inoculation are both ways to fight infectious diseases. Each approach can improve health, neither is perfect, and some combination of both is useful in practice. But for the most serious diseases, inoculation is far superior to therapy.
Clinical therapy is costly. For therapy to cure a disease, a patient must recognize that (s)he is sick, be aware that treatment is available, seek treatment, and then follow a course of treatment and hope that it works. For health care providers, therapy requires highly skilled employees, careful diagnostic procedures, and treatment that can involve expensive drugs and equipment. Meanwhile, the broader community bears the costs of people who go untreated or carry the disease without symptoms.
Inoculation is comparatively inexpensive. Inoculation requires little time or sophistication from patients, and it is quick and easy for health care providers. A tiny minority might suffer adverse effects, but the community benefits from widespread immunization, which can sometimes effectively eradicate a disease from an entire population.
Customer assistance programs as clinical therapy
CAPs seek to ameliorate affordability problems caused in part by water and sewer rates. CAPs come in lots of shapes and sizes. Some are as simple as shut-off forbearance and budget billing; others involve income-qualified rate discounts or bill forgiveness plans; still others provide high-efficiency fixtures or appliances for low-income households.
Like clinical therapy, CAPs are costly. CAPs have obvious direct costs to the utility, like revenue lost through discounts or the direct cost of installing retrofits. CAPs can also have significant administrative costs: someone must determine which customers qualify, keep records of who receives or is denied assistance, and keep track of those who lose eligibility over time. Utilities sometimes coordinate assistance with other agencies to administer these programs more efficiently, but that only reduces administrative costs, it doesn’t avoid them. CAPs can be politically and legally risky, too, since they are explicit transfers from one group to another. In many states utilities are legally constrained from such transfers.
Less obviously, CAPs are also costly for their recipients. In order to participate in a CAP, a water customer must:
- Learn that the program exists;
- Find out if (s)he is eligible;
- Apply for the program; and
- Follow up with program administrators as necessary to maintain eligibility.
Each of these steps imposes a transaction cost of time and effort on working-class families. If participation requires an in-person visit, then transportation and child care add to those costs. Language barriers and distrust of government can raise transaction costs even further. There are good reasons to believe that many people who are eligible for and badly need CAPs never apply for them.
Rate design as inoculation
Some key elements of rate design can improve affordability directly, without the need for CAPs, by maintaining low prices for essential household water and sanitation. Specifically, affordability-friendly rate structures feature:
- Low fixed charges;
- Volumetric sewer prices based on indoor flows;
- Low volumetric water prices for essential household water use; and
- Steeply escalating volumetric prices for demand beyond essential use.
Like inoculation, rate design is a solution with low administrative burdens. Affordability-friendly rate designs create no additional transaction costs for utilities or customers. Since rate structures apply to everyone, there’s no need to determine or track income eligibility, and there’s no worry that eligible customers are failing to sign up. Customers do not need to learn about, apply for, or document their eligibility. Rate design isn’t an affordability cure-all, but it can go an awfully long way toward immunizing a population against unaffordable water and sewer service.
So why don’t more utilities use rate design to address affordability?
Ordinary organizational inertia is one reason, of course. There’s also a widespread misperception in ratemaking circles that affordability contravenes goals like cost-of-service equity, full-cost pricing, and/or conservation. Happily, affordability-friendly rate design can exist in harmony with all of these principles—I’ll tackle that topic in a future post.
But the greatest barrier to more affordability-through-rate design is probably revenue stability. High fixed charges generate revenue reliably. Revenue from volumetric charges fluctuate with water sales, which vary seasonally and can skyrocket or plummet depending on the weather. A utility doesn’t sell much high-priced, high-volume water if it rains all summer and nobody waters their lawn. That can leave the utility in tough financial shape, because the utility’s capital and operating costs are mostly fixed. Some utilities have responded to falling average water demand by raising their fixed charges, in large part to manage revenue volatility. That’s bad news for affordability.
So a key to more affordable rate design is developing mechanisms that manage utilities’ revenue risks. Adequately insulated from those risks, utilities can price water more equitably, efficiently, and affordably.