Water Sector Reform #2:
Regulatory Transparency & Fairness
With a major federal investment in water infrastructure possibly on the horizon, the United States has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to leverage that money into transformational, institutional solutions for America’s water sector. This is the second in a series of five posts outlining five broad ideas to reform the management, governance, and regulation of U.S. drinking water, sewer, and stormwater systems. The first proposed reform was consolidation of water utilities.
The second proposed reform is an overhaul of the processes and institutions that regulate water system finance using regulatory models from New Jersey and Wisconsin. The goal of this reform is not to regulate water quality directly, but rather to change the incentives for the organizations that operate water systems.
The need for regulatory reforms follow from the ownership structure of the U.S. water sector.
Another important way in which water is different from energy and other utilities is ownership. The overwhelming majority of Americans get their electricity and/or gas from a private, investor-owned firm, with small minorities receiving service from government utilities. But water is a different story: about 88% of Americans get their drinking water service from a local government, with about 12% served by private firms.
Ownership is crucial because different institutions govern private and public systems, creating different incentives for infrastructure investment.
Public Utilities Commissions
Let’s start with the private sector. The profit motive, constrained by regulation, drives management of investor-owned utilities.
Private utilities of all kinds—water, energy, telecom, whatever—are operated by corporate managers in the interests of their shareholders. But utilities are natural monopolies, and so we can’t count on free markets to guide investment and pricing. Instead, prices are not set by the companies themselves, but rather by the state Public Utilities Commissions (PUCs). The PUCs require utilities to report publicly their asset management plans and financial records in order to justify their pricing. PUC-regulated systems must also report a variety of performance data, which commissioners scrutinize to ensure that utilities are maintaining adequate service.
PUCs allow private utilities to set prices based on the amount of capital they invest in the system: the more capital invested, the more revenue they earn. That can create an incentive for private utilities to over-invest in infrastructure because those investments allow them to raise rates—a problem known as the Averch-Johnson Effect. Much of what the PUCs do is scrutinize all those investments to ensure that they’re justified and that utilities aren’t gold-plating their systems. In other words, PUCs act to prevent over-investment in utility capital.
But remember, that’s only about 12% of the water sector.
The overwhelming majority of water service is provided by local governments—usually cities, counties, towns, villages, authorities, and special districts. These systems are managed by local bureaucrats, with investment and pricing decisions made by local elected officials. For all the talk about federal funding, U.S. water infrastructure investment is mainly a function of local politics.
Local politics are unkind to water infrastructure because the price of water is much more visible than the quality of water. As in all things, people generally like high quality and low prices. Thing is, most contaminants in water are invisible. Unless my water is so bad that I can smell or taste it, unless there are frequent an ongoing outages and main breaks, I really have no idea how good my water system is. Unlike roads and bridges, water systems are literally buried.
But the price of water is easily observable. Voters may not know what contaminants are in the water, but they know for sure what they pay for it when they get the bill each month.
Now suppose I’m an elected official who wants to please my voters. If I make decisions that maintain or improve water quality, that’s good! Alas, my voters may not recognize the improvement. But quality improvement might cause prices to increase, which is bad because higher prices are immediately visible to voters.
But blame avoidance isn’t good for infrastructure investment. That’s a big part of why all those facilities built back in the 1970s and 80s are crumbling today. Back when the CWA and SDWA sent hundreds of billions of dollars to local governments, the idea was never for the US government to own and operate water systems. The goal was for Uncle Sam to help get those systems up and running in compliance with the new environmental laws. Local governments were then supposed to take over responsibility for those systems. In too many cases political forces have led local officials to run those systems to failure. Local politicians don’t neglect water infrastructure because they’re stupid; they do it because they’re responsive to voters.
Jersey to the Rescue?
In 2017 New Jersey passed the Water Quality Accountability Act (WQAA), which requires all water utilities—both government and investor-owned—to develop asset management plans, report on infrastructure conditions, and reinvest adequately in their systems. Rule-making to implement the new law is still under way, but what the WQAA requires of all water systems is similar to what PUCs already require of investor-owned utilities: transparency about infrastructure conditions, evidence that they are managing assets responsibly, and evidence of system performance.
Making all that system information transparent can make water’s quality as visible at its price. We can make water infrastructure a credit-claiming opportunity for local officials, not just a blame-avoidance game. Mayors seeking reelection should point at their cities’ water system performance with pride, not merely seek to duck responsibility for rate increases.
Meanwhile, in Madison…
A thousand miles away, Wisconsin employs a unique regulatory system that’s a perfect complement to New Jersey’s new law. All fifty states and the District of Columbia have Public Utilities Commissions, but Wisconsin is the only state where all systems—public and private—are subject to PUC financial regulation. That is, Wisconsin local governments must get approval of their rates from the PUC (or the Public Services Commission, as they call it there).
As with other utilities commissions, the traditional role of the Wisconsin PSC with respect to rates is to guard against over-pricing by private monopolies. But in the case of local government utilities, the PSC’s authority could include New Jersey-style asset management requirements and a guard against underpricing due to inadequate reinvestment. At the same time, the PSC provides something of a shield for local leaders. As a 2012 Alliance for Water Efficiency report observed:
“The Wisconsin Public Service Commission regulates both public and private water systems, and assumes the responsibility for approving all changes to water rate-making in the state. Thus, the political ‘heat’ is off at the local level and water systems can more easily approach the PSC for needed changes to their revenue structures.”
In theory, if a utility isn’t adequately investing in maintenance and upgrades, the Wisconsin PSC might actually be able to compel rate increases. (I’m not sure that’s ever actually happened).
Together, the Garden State’s new WQAA and the Badger State’s PSC authority over local governments would be a potent regulatory combination. So my second proposed reform is to require comprehensive asset management and performance reporting for all water utilities (as in New Jersey), and to extend PUC pricing regulation to government utilities (as in Wisconsin). The idea is broadly consistent with Australia’s model for urban water price regulation. As with my other proposed reforms, achieving such a significant overhaul to the nation’s regulatory institutions will require federal leverage.
The great promise of the regulatory regimes pioneered in New Jersey and Wisconsin is that transparency and fairness can make buried infrastructure more visible, and so shift the political incentives for sound management of water systems.
Water Sector Reform #1: Consolidation
With a major federal investment in water infrastructure possibly on the horizon, the United States has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to leverage that money into reforms to transform America’s water sector. This is the first in a series of posts outlining five broad proposed reforms.
The first is consolidation and regionalization of water utilities. This is the single most important, badly-needed reform. Without this reform, any major federal investment will be a temporary fix, and the rest of my proposed reforms probably won’t work without it. To understand why, start with a simple observation:
There are WAY too many water systems
One of the things that really surprises newcomers to the American water sector is just how many water systems there are. The energy sector provides a useful comparison. In the United States today there are about 3,200 electrical utilities and about 1,400 gas utilities. There are about 50,000 community water systems.
These systems are highly skewed in size. It turns out that 40,000 of those 50,000 are very small, serving populations fewer than 3,300. These small systems serve less than 10% of the population, but they are 80% of the total systems. A little more than half of the US population gets its water from the largest thousand utilities.
It’s difficult to overstate the effects of this extreme fragmentation. Virtually every aspect of America’s water sector is worse because there are so many tiny systems that lack the capacity to operate effectively.
Small systems, big problems
America’s water problems aren’t only in small systems, but there’s no question that small water systems are disproportionately plagued by poor water quality. Here’s the relationship between system size and violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act’s heath standards:
As you can see, violations are strongly related to system size. In small systems it’s not uncommon for utilities to have multiple violations, year in and year out. This graph is from my own analysis w/David Switzer, but study after study after study after study after study finds this same relationship. Here’s the same plot for sewer treatment plants and NPDES permit noncompliance the Clean Water Act, from a study I did with Mellie Haider and David Switzer:
High prices, too
Adding insult to injury, water is also more expensive in small systems. Small systems pay more for capital, they have fewer customers to share the fixed costs, and they’re more vulnerable to revenue fluctuations, which limits their flexibility in rate design. Here’s the relationship between the price of basic monthly water and sewer service for a family of four (about 6,000 gallons a month) measured in hours of labor at minimum wage.*
Water and sewer services are most expensive in small systems, and get cheaper as systems grow. So with both quality and price, there’s strong evidence that there are huge economies of scale to the water sector. These economies of scale are well-understood.
Regulatory economies of scale
But there’s another, less obvious and more pernicious problem with all these small systems: all that fragmentation creates practical problems for regulators. Every one of those 50,000 systems has to be managed, monitored, and regulated by the EPA, in conjunction with more than a hundred state, territorial, and tribal bureaucracies. 50,000 systems means 50,000 sites to visit, 50,000 files to keep current, and 50,000 records to report. State regulatory offices don’t have the information systems—let alone the legions of workers—to handle all that work.
A well-kept secret of the water sector is that small systems are held to much lower standards than larger systems. It’s not just that enforcement is lax with small systems; the agencies that regulate water actually have different enforcement guidelines for small systems, with less stringent standards.
The good intention that paved the way to this particular hell is the recognition that small systems often lack the organizational capacity to comply with the rules. Water regulations are unfunded mandates. Rather than continuously slamming small systems for their violations, regulators move the goalposts, or simply look the other way when violations occur. So the correlation we see between size and SDWA and CWA violations actually grossly understates the real relationship between scale and water quality. Intentionally lax enforcement consigns people served by small systems—often poorer, rural populations—to heightened health risks and poor environmental quality.
Shrink by Growing
These problems are widely recognized. Sure, there are some excellent small systems, and small system operators often achieve remarkable things with limited resources. But the data are clear, and the stakes are high. The common sense solution is to reduce the number of systems through consolidation: shrink the number of systems by growing utility organizations.
Consolidation can happen when multiple systems merge, a bigger utility takes over a smaller one, or when an investor-owned firm buys up small systems. The right consolidation approach will vary from one place to another; we ought to be agnostic with respect to the institutional form. Physically integrated utility systems are best where possible, but small systems can be folded into larger organizations even when they’re physically separate. That is, multiple small systems can be operated by a single organization. Several government and investor-owned utilities already operate under this model.
But it’s hard. Consolidation efforts often face fierce political resistance, either from communities who fear losing control or from staff who fear losing jobs. Sometimes it’s difficult to find larger utilities willing to take on the responsibility for a small, failing systems. Consolidation is controversial in the water sector; in certain circles “consolidation” is a dirty word. I’ve heard privately from multiple regulatory officials that they desperately want consolidation, but are afraid even to utter the word “consolidation” in public. Sometimes it’s just hard to navigate the legal and financial complexities of consolidation. Consolidation has been agonizingly slow in Connecticut; four years after passing a law to promote small system consolidation in California, little has happened.
Tastier carrots, bigger sticks
Shrinking the number of systems is the single best thing we can do to improve water infrastructure in America. So my first proposal is to reduce the number of water utilities by an order of magnitude—to something like 5,000-10,000 utilities—by 2030. As is often the case in public life, moral appeal and clear empirical evidence have been insufficient to overcome the political barriers to consolidation. That’s where federal leverage can make a difference.
Federal funding for local water, sewer, and stormwater systems must be contingent on consolidation. Let’s spend money to fix failing systems, but only if the fixes put them on a path to self-sufficiency. Low-interest loan programs probably aren’t sufficient to induce consolidation; hundreds of billions in federal grants would be a whole lot more appealing. For small systems, federal grants must be awarded only with consolidation. For larger systems, federal grants should be awarded only to utilities that agree to takeover nearby or adjacent smaller systems. Consolidation can be technically, legally, and financially complicated, so federal funding should also provide technical assistance to support the process.
A key corollary to that federal largess is a leveling of the regulatory playing field. There must be one rule book: all water and sewer systems must be held to the same standards. No more loosening the rules for small systems because they lack the organizational capacity to comply with environmental regulations. If systems lack the capacity to comply with the rules, then regulators should be empowered to force consolidation for systems that fail perennially.
Next time I’ll turn to the second major proposal: a change in regulatory transparency aimed at changing the local politics of water infrastructure.
*You can see a bunch more analysis of affordability here.
A California surprise: update
California has been enjoying a great deal of rain and snow over the past several months—a pleasant rebound in precipitation after the brutal drought that plagued the state from 2011-2017. It’s now early 2019, reservoirs are full, the mountain snowpack is deep, and water managers in the Golden State are breathing easier than they have in a long time. Though water use has crept up since the end of the drought, overall water consumption remains lower than its pre-drought levels.
A California surprise
A surprising finding emerged from my analysis of California’s drought data with Youlang Zhang and David Switzer: the state’s private, investor-owned utilities conserved significantly more water than did local government utilities during the crisis. We linked the difference in drought response to the institutions that govern water finance. Nerds interested readers can read the full study in Policy Studies Journal for the details.
In a blog post last summer, I observed that a public-private conservation gap of 2-3% persisted in 2017 even after the drought ended, and wrote that financial imperatives would likely cause the trend to continue:
This consistent public-private difference lends greater weight to the idea that rate decoupling facilitates water conservation for private utilities, and that political constraints hamper public sector conservation. If 2018 holds to form, public and private conservation will converge in the spring and diverge again in the summer and autumn.
If financial and political considerations are really behind the public-private differences in conservation, then it stands to reason that the greatest differences would come during summer months, when water demand–and therefore rate revenue–fluctuations are greatest.
Now that full 2018 data are posted, it’s time to revisit conservation performance for the Golden State’s water utilities. Was the forecast valid? Did private systems conserve more than public systems again last year?
Are my water conservation predictions any better than my NCAA Tournament picks?*
Overall urban water use remained significantly lower in 2018, with average monthly conservation of about 14% compared with 2013. The public-private disparity in overall conservation also persisted. This graph plots average conservation (relative to the same month in 2013) for public and private utilities from January-December 2018:
As you can see, public and private conservation moved in pretty close parallel through 2018, but private utility conservation was consistently higher than public. The difference was negligible during winter months, but during the May-September peak demand season, California’s investor-owned utilities saved an average of 2.3% more than their local government counterparts.
As always when discussing water, it’s important to give percentages some context. Had public utilities saved at the same rate as private utilities in 2018, the difference would have been about 27 billion gallons—more water than San Francisco uses in a year.
Decoupling, man. Decoupling.
The persistent seasonal swing in public-private water conservation suggests that the difference is due to differences in outdoor irrigation behavior. That the pattern is now consistent over three years adds to the mounting evidence that rate decoupling encourages conservation for investor-owned water systems.
This isn’t a story of environmental angels or devils, it’s about governance institutions and the incentives that they create. In light of the political challenges of managing local government water finance, it’s impressive that public utilities have continued to conserve as much as they have—a testament to local water managers’ commitment to efficiency in the face of political headwinds.
*They could hardly be worse. I didn’t get a single Final Four team right.