Organization of U.S. drinking water utilities in a few simple figures
Here are some graphs that convey a few key things about the organization of drinking water utilities in the United States.*
There's a lot of important information in those graphs, but these are the most important for policymaking purposes:
- Fragmentation. There are nearly 50,000 community water systems in the United States, an order of magnitude more than electrical and gas utilities combined.
- Ownership & governance. The overwhelming majority of Americans (84%) get their drinking water service from local government utilities, rather than investor-owned utilities. This proportion is opposite from the energy sector, where investor-owned firms hold the lion's share of the market.
- Size. The distribution of systems is highly skewed in size: over half of American community water systems are very small, serving populations of less than 500; the largest 434 systems serve nearly half of the U.S. population.
These three realities inform virtually every aspect of water system management, operations, finance, and regulation. Any successful effort to improve or reform American drinking water utilities must account for the political and administrative challenges that these realities present.
Organizations are human creations, so we can change them if we want to. But we can’t ignore them.
*Feel free to copy and use; please link to this page.
Sovereignty isn’t what’s on paper, it’s what flows through taps and rivers
America is slowly awakening to the dire state of tribal water and sewer systems. Access to drinking water and sanitation services are severely limited on many reservations, and where such systems exist, many are in poor shape. A couple years ago the first systematic study of Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) and Clean Water Act (CWA) implementation for tribal facilities yielded alarming results: tribal systems violated the SDWA 57% more and the CWA 23% more than similar non-tribal facilities. The disparities extended to enforcement, too: formal SDWA enforcement was 12% lower and CWA inspections 44% less frequent for tribal facilities. Evidence of systemic environmental injustice is seldom so glaring.
But there is hope. A new study offers promising evidence for a way to tackle the daunting challenge of tribal water systems. This time instead of comparing tribal and non-tribal systems, Mellie Haider and I looked at differences across tribal facilities to see whether regulatory institutions might hold the key to better environmental management in Indian Country. To understand why, we have to start with the foundations of federal environmental regulation and the peculiar legal status of Indian nations.
Environmental federalism & tribal governance
The landmark laws of the 1970s that form the core of American environmental protection (e.g., the Clean Air Act, Resource Conservation & Recovery Act, SDWA, CWA) were built with a system of federal-state cooperative implementation. Under these laws, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets rules, and states are responsible for implementation and enforcement of those rules for the facilities operating in their jurisdictions.
Thing is, tribes are sovereign nations under the U.S. Constitution, and so they—and, by extension, their water/sewer systems—are not subject to state laws. Oddly, the major environmental laws of the 1970s made no explicit provision for regulation of tribal facilities. As a result, tribal water and sewer systems operated in a regulatory vacuum well into the 1980s.
Introducing tribal primacy
Beginning in the Reagan Administration, a series of amendments and executive orders extended federal environmental laws to tribal lands and gave EPA direct implementation authority over them. Some tribal officials successfully lobbied Congress to treat tribes as states for regulatory purposes. With these new rules, tribes may apply to take primary implementation responsibility, or “primacy,” under federal environmental laws. Tribes applying for primacy authority must demonstrate to EPA that they have the administrative capacity to handle regulatory enforcement.
What difference would implementation primacy make to tribal environmental regulation?
On one hand, tribes might engage in a “race to the bottom,” loosening or neglecting environmental rules in order to avoid regulatory costs and improve economic output. But a race‐to‐the‐bottom logic makes little sense for American Indian tribes with respect to environmental regulation. Already occupying the proverbial “bottom,” tribes have little reason to shirk regulatory compliance in a race there.
On the other hand, tribal primacy might lead to more rigorous enforcement, as tribes seek to improve health while maintaining their traditions and cultures. Federal regulators have few political incentives for devoting scarce resources to enforcement on tribal land, especially when tribes may lack the political strength to demand strict enforcement. At the same time, many tribal governments serve sparsely populated communities under poor economic conditions, leaving tribes with limited access to the human and financial capital necessary to maintain compliance. Regulatory neglect might be the unfortunate (though understandable) result. Tribes with primacy have more control over their own environmental fates. Moreover, primacy can give tribes an important lever in their environmental conflicts with neighboring firms and jurisdictions.*
What difference does primacy make?To understand the impact of implementation primacy on tribal clean water enforcement, we analyzed CWA records for 474 tribal wastewater treatment plants in the United States from 2016-2019. About 15% of these facilities operate under tribal regulatory primacy; the rest are regulated directly by the EPA.** After adjusting for facility size, we found that facilities operated by tribes with primacy were inspected more than twice as often as those regulated by the EPA.†
The enforcement gap between tribal and EPA enforcement is greatest for smaller facilities and declines as facility size grows. Over our three-year period of analysis, a very small facility (design capacity 5,000 gallons per day) received an average of 2.75 more inspections under tribal primacy than under EPA oversight. At a moderately large facility (2.5 million GPD), the difference fell to just 0.24, statistically indistinguishable from zero.
The fact that the biggest differences are in the smallest systems underscores the impact of tribal primacy as an administrative phenomenon: it stands to reason that EPA officials spend their limited resources on larger tribal facilities. But in the water sector, the greatest environmental injustices are often in the smallest, most isolated communities. Our evidence shows that tribal primacy has its greatest impact in those small, isolated communities that are otherwise easily neglected.
Implementation authority over environmental regulation gives tribal governments effective sovereignty. Sovereignty turns from mere legal assertion to real, practical impact when tribal officials have greater control over their own destinies. Along with money for pipes and plants, efforts to improve tribal water systems must build human capital and organizational capacity to operate and regulate those facilities. Recognizing this reality, the EPA and the Indian Health Service, along with Indian organizations like Native American Water Association and Intertribal Council of Arizona, run programs aimed at building tribal capacity. In the long run, empowering and building tribal governance capacity offers perhaps the most promising avenue for improving the environment in Indian Country.
*In fact, we found that tribes with a history of frequent federal litigation were more likely to seek primacy. A history of litigation indicates tribal independence, nationalism, and other political factors related to assertions of sovereignty.
**At the time of our study, only one tribe (the Navajo Nation) held SDWA primacy, so we couldn’t analyze variation in drinking water regulation.
†Our analysis also adjusted for differences in the characteristics of tribes with and without primacy.
How the federal government might end shutoffs & keep water flowing during the COVID-19 crisis
The COVID-19 crisis has escalated America’s water and sewer affordability challenge into a full-blown health emergency. Many low-income households struggle to pay for these essential services in the best of times, and the specter of shutoffs for non-payment now threatens to worsen the pandemic. It’s hard to wash hands, cook at home, and maintain adequate sanitation without water service.
In response to the fast-moving crisis, scores of utilities are suspending shutoffs and restoring service for the duration of the pandemic. That is a prudent move in this emergency, but suspending shutoffs and restoring service carries significant financial risks for utilities and does not fundamentally solve the affordability problem, even in the short-run. An end to shutoffs does not mean an end to high prices, late fees, or penalties. When the crisis passes, many customers will still have outstanding balances running into the thousands of dollars and once again face the threat of shut-offs. Meanwhile, in plenty of places shutoffs continue even as COVID-19 rages.
Federal water bill relief?
Last week Congress passed a monumental $2 trillion economic rescue package in response to the COVID-19 crisis sweeping the country. During the helter-skelter Capitol Hill negotiations over the COVID-19 bill, House members proposed $1.5 billion in water assistance relief for low-income households. Modeled after LIHEAP, the federal low-income energy assistance program, the proposal would have provided financial assistance to income-qualified households to help pay for water bills through existing LIHEAP administrative processes. The proposal didn’t make it into the bill that finally reached President Trump’s desk.
Although the water bill assistance would surely have helped many, it would likely have made little difference in the big picture. For starters, while $1.5 billion is a lot of money, means-tested assistance programs are costly to administer and burdensome for customers who need help. This sort of relief can help, but will take time to work its way through administrative processes and into consumers’ accounts to prevent shutoffs. Even at their best, means-tested programs help a small fraction of the eligible population—historically LIHEAP has reached only about 16% of those eligible for assistance. Complicating matters is the extreme fragmentation of the U.S. water sector, with 50,000 mostly small water systems operating across the country. Some of the poorest Americans live in small communities where utilities’ and social service organizations have limited capacity to administer assistance. The need for immediate relief in the face of a pandemic demands faster, farther-reaching action.
Bigger, bolder, faster action*
So what might work better? I’ve long argued that pricing, not assistance programs, is the best way to tackle water affordability. With the pandemic upon us and a massive, emergency need for universal in-home water and sanitation, it’s worth considering a similarly massive, emergency financial response. Here’s an outline of a scheme that could quickly end shutoffs and maximize short-term affordability relief with the lowest management cost to utilities and zero administrative burdens on customers.
The federal government should provide formulaic, conditional grants directly to water utilities. Grants would be awarded as a percentage of each utility’s budgeted 2020 annual rate revenue, with the percentage equal to the community’s poverty rate. For example, Seattle Public Utilities’ 2020 budget calls for $205 million in water revenue and about 12% of its population lives in poverty, so its grant would be $24.6 million. Detroit’s budgeted water rate revenue for 2019-2020 is $131 million and its poverty rate is 33%, so its grant would be $43.2 million.
In exchange for this cash injection, utilities would have to meet simple conditions on pricing and customer administration. Specifically, for the duration of the national COVID-19 pandemic, utilities would:
- End residential shutoffs for non-payment;
- Restore service to all occupied residences currently shut off;
- End residential foreclosures and financial penalties for non-payment or service restoration;
- Forgive all outstanding penalties, fees, and interest on residential water accounts;
- Structure prices so that 6,000 gallons of monthly residential water and sewer service costs less than $58 (eight hours of labor at federal minimum wage).
All community water systems that operate on a fee-for-service basis would qualify, including municipal, tribal, special district, and investor-owned systems. Utilities could use the money to offset revenue losses due to COVID-19 crisis, fund assistance programs, or maintain and improve capital.
Federal funds would be channeled from EPA through existing state Drinking Water Revolving Funds directly into utility coffers, requiring very little additional administrative capacity. There would be no administrative burden at all on customers. Administration for very small systems could be managed through state or county governments.
With annual water utility revenue totaling something like $70 billion and a national poverty rate of 11.8%, the program would end up costing around $8.5 billion dollars. For another $10 billion we could extend the program to cover sewer revenue, too. Until last week, those would seem like absurdly large sums, but they’re rounding errors in the $2 trillion-dollar package that Congress just approved.
Emergency & aftermath
To be clear, this isn’t a carefully considered, meticulously modeled plan—it’s an idea meant to get water flowing immediately in response to an urgent need. These are big, blunt policy instruments, but the proposal outlined here could be introduced on Monday, signed into law by Wednesday, and water service restored in communities across the country by Friday. In a pandemic every moment matters.
Lasting, sustainable solutions for the water sector will require more fundamental reforms to the way that we govern, finance, and manage these critical systems. I hope that once the COVID-19 storm fades, a renewed commitment to improving the American water sector is one of its silver linings.
*Thanks to Wendi Wilkes for prompting and helping me think this through via Twitter. She deserves a share of the credit if you like this idea, but no blame if you hate it.