A five-point proposal to transform U.S. water system governance
As daunting as the challenges in the U.S. water sector are, solutions are possible and within our grasp. Thanks to legions of smart, creative scientists and engineers, we know a lot about the threats to environmental quality and health, and we’re pretty good at finding ways to address them. Today the principal barriers to progress in the water sector are not environmental or technological; they are social, economic, and political.
Fixing the water sector—really fixing the water sector—means more than government money for pipes. The crazy quilt of institutions that govern, regulate, and manage water in the United States hinders effective, lasting solutions. Fortunately, institutions are human creations, which means we can do something about them. There’s nothing wrong with water governance in America that can’t be solved.
Over the past few months I’ve written a series advancing five broad institutional reforms to the U.S. water sector that ought to accompany any big federal investment.* This post summarizes them. They’re a package deal: each reform complements the others, and each is unlikely to be successful without the others. It’s an ambitious plan, but it’s rooted in empirical research, and together the five parts are technically and politically feasible. Here they are (click each heading for the full post on each):
There are more than 50,000 community water systems and 15,000 sanitary sewer systems in the United States. Virtually every aspect of America’s water sector is worse because there are so many systems. Let’s reduce the number of water systems to fewer than 5,000 by 2030. Consolidation can happen by merging neighboring systems into a regional utility, creating new authorities or nonprofit organizations, or when an investor-owned firm purchases small systems. To make it happen:
- Federal funding for water, sewer, and stormwater systems must be contingent on small system consolidation.
- Laws governing utility mergers and acquisitions should remove barriers to and create incentives for consolidation. Consolidation laws should ensure that struggling systems are consolidated and guard against “cherry-picking.”
- All systems must be held to the same environmental standards. Exemptions and waivers for small systems should be eliminated and regulators should be empowered to force condemnation and consolidation for perennially failing systems.
- State and federal agencies should provide technical and legal assistance to facilitate the consolidation process.
Reducing the number of water and sewer utilities through consolidation is the single best thing we can do to improve water utilities in the United States.
Let’s follow regulatory regimes used in New Jersey and Wisconsin to change the incentives for utility leaders to invest in their systems adequately and manage them responsibly.
- Regulatory authorities should collect and publicly report performance metrics for each water and sewer system,
- Water, sewer, and stormwater systems must develop comprehensive asset management plans, and demonstrate that capital assets are adequately maintained.
- Public Utilities Commission pricing and service quality regulation should be extended to all utilities, not just investor-owned systems.
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 and economic incentives for sound management of water systems.
America’s water systems need a technological leap forward with comprehensive deployment of information technology. Let’s get our systems out of the 19th and 20th centuries and into the 21st and 22nd. Funding for water, sewer, and stormwater systems should support data collection and analytical capacity for more effective and efficient investment and operations.
The water sector needs a stronger supply of human capital, and we need to streamline the labor market. To that end, let’s:
- Invest in the next generation of water professionals with new and rejuvenated educational and training programs.
- Create national standards for operator licensing and certification.
- Build a body of rigorous, data-driven social science research on effective utility management, leadership, and organizations.
Let’s build environmental justice into water, sewer, and stormwater policy. Specifically:
- Federal and state authorities must establish standard metrics to assess racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic equity in environmental conditions and infrastructure investments.
- Utilities must collect and publicly report data on service shutoffs and restorations, and work toward an end to shutoffs.
- Regulators must demonstrate equity in inspections and enforcement actions.
- Eligibility for federal infrastructure funds must be contingent on utilities demonstrating equity or progress toward equity.
- Channel extra funding and technical assistance to communities that suffer from significant disparities due to historical or structural disadvantages.
The way forward
Just over a year from now Americans will head to the polls for a pivotal federal election. With water on the national political agenda in a way it hasn’t been since the 1970s, we are, perhaps, an election away from a major federal investment in infrastructure, and with it an opportunity to reimagine water governance. Let’s use that opportunity do more than rebuild pipes; let’s rebuild institutions. If we do it right, those institutions will keep the pipes working for generations to come, and our legacy will be a cleaner environment and healthier, more prosperous people.
*The five-part plan debuted in a talk I gave at as part of the University of Rhode Island’s Metcalf Institute public lecture series last summer. You can catch the whole talk here if you’re so inclined.
Devils (and angels) in the details, Part 4
In early January the California Water Board published its long-anticipated draft proposal for a statewide low-income water bill assistance program. In the past few posts, I’ve summarized the path-breaking proposal, discussed its potentially perverse incentives for ratemaking, and pondered its implications for small system consolidation. In this post, I take up that crucial but oft-overlooked dimension of public policy: administration.
Administering statewide water bill assistance
The draft proposal acknowledges that administering a brand new social welfare transfer program will be costly and complicated. The low-income water rate assistance program will need to be advertised, applications processed, incomes and personal data verified, customers enrolled, and so on. Then the benefits themselves would need to be distributed in some way. Participants will need to renew their eligibility periodically, which will require re-verification. Audit procedures will be needed to guard against fraud and abuse, and appeals processes established to provide recourse to those wrongfully denied benefits.
The draft proposal punts on who exactly would do all that administrative work.
Rather than arguing for a specific administrative arrangement, it lays out four potential approaches to benefit disbursement:
- Water bill credits
- Energy bill credits
- EBT (Electronic Benefits Transfer) cards
- Tax credits
The first option might seem most obvious, but the draft report correctly observes that many benefit-eligible households may not receive water bills directly, because they live in multifamily or rental housing and so pay for water service through their rent. Options #2-4 have the potential to reach more households. Options #3 and #4 most closely approximate the received wisdom of welfare research, which suggests that benefits work best when they are received directly by their beneficiaries.
What about everything else?
But there’s much more to a low-income assistance program than handing out benefits. Conspicuously absent from the draft report is discussion of the many other aspects of administering a new assistance program. Here are some options.
Utility administration. Water systems could administer the program on behalf of the state (several California investor-owned utilities already run assistance programs, for example). Utility organizations are, by and large, unaccustomed to administering social welfare programs. Recently I’ve had the opportunity to study a handful of water utilities that administer low-income assistance programs. I found that, when water utilities get into the low-income assistance game, utility staff become de facto social workers. Water customers who apply for assistance often struggle with multiple health, financial, legal, and perhaps cultural problems. It is impossible not to make a human connection in such cases. Laudably, the utility folks I’ve met who administer water assistance programs work hard to do so humanely and responsibly. But welfare administration is, at best, an uneasy fit for many utility organizations. Moreover, the burden of administering an assistance program would be especially onerous for the very small systems that already suffer disproportionately from high prices and poor water quality.
State administration. The California Water Board (or some new agency) could create a new organization to administer the program. This sort of centralized administration could provide economies of scale and help ensure uniformity and fairness across the state. On the other hand, state administration would involve significant new investments in staffing and other administrative infrastructure, all of which would be subject to the vagaries of state politics.
Nonprofit administration. Water bill assistance could be administered through community-based nonprofit community service organizations like the Salvation Army or St Vincent DePaul Society. In addition to providing direct charitable aid, such organizations often are conduits for government assistance programs like LIHEAP. Many of these nonprofit organizations employ sizable, multilingual staffs that include social workers, nutritionists, lawyers, and other professionals who help low-income individuals and families navigate the often confusing and sometimes humiliating process of applying for benefits. These organizations’ expertise, flexibility, and familiarity with target populations offer perhaps the most promising avenue for administration.
The recipient’s administrative burden
Also missing from the California Water Board’s draft proposal—and most of the broader discussion of low-income water bill assistance—is consideration of the administrative burdens that water customers would have to bear in order to receive benefits. Learning about the assistance program, applying, demonstrating eligibility, ensuring receipt, and reapplying are time-consuming and sometimes humiliating processes. These costs may be especially significant for people with low literacy or limited English proficiency. Potentially eligible people may forego benefits if the application process is too burdensome, if they perceive a social stigma associated with public assistance, or if they do not trust government.
Taken together, administrative costs—to the state, to utilities, and to low-income households—are a big part of why I’ve argued that rate structures, not assistance programs, offer the most promising path to water affordability. Low fixed rates and low prices for essential water use make water affordable for everyone. Unlike assistance programs, affordability through rate design doesn’t create new administrative costs, and doesn’t make customers endure intrusive and burdensome application processes. As policymakers grapple with water affordability in California and beyond, they should consider ways to help encourage utilities to price water more affordably alongside bill assistance efforts.
Many California communities restricted outdoor irrigation during the recent drought. Did enforcement matter?
Faced with water scarcity, communities sometimes restrict residential outdoor water use, such as car washing and especially lawn/garden irrigation. These water restrictions are effective in driving water conservation, and many California communities adopted them during that state’s recent drought (I’ve blogged about them before). The severity of those restrictions varied considerably, with some utilities allowing unlimited irrigation, some allowing irrigation just one or two days per week, and a few banning outdoor irrigation altogether.
Enforcement of those restrictions was up to individual utilities, and enforcement actions varied considerably. Youlang Zhang and I have been analyzing those enforcement actions and how they correlated with conservation outcomes; we’ll present our first results at the APSA Conference in Boston next week. How did California utilities enforce water restrictions? Did enforcement actions affect water consumption?
Avenues of enforcement
In July 2014 the SWRCB authorized local water utilities to impose fines of up to $500 a day for violating water restrictions and invited citizens to report violations of water use restrictions through online portals and telephone hotlines. After receiving complaints or observing violations, utilities proceeded with a series of escalating enforcement steps. The first is a follow-up action, an informal intervention that typically involves sharing information with the violator with a goal of compliance through education. The second step is a formal warning, where the utility informs the violator of regulations and potential penalties. The final step is a formal penalty and fine.
A different logic underlies each of these enforcement actions Follow-up actions convey information about public policies and community values, with the expectation that greater awareness will motivate conservation. Warnings threaten violators with punishment, and so raise the prospective cost of profligacy. Penalties punish past action in hope of deterring future behavior. Over the course of the drought local utilities issued hundreds of thousands of warnings and levied tens of thousands of penalties for violating water regulations.
We analyzed monthly data from California over the 32-month drought emergency period, looking for relationships between utilities’ enforcement actions and total conservation by those utilities. Basically we were asking: does past enforcement predict present conservation?
Initial results are fascinating. Informal follow-up actions and penalties had no statistically discernible relationship with conservation. Only warnings appear to be correlated with conservation. Here are the effects, plotted graphically:
In substantive terms, these results indicate that 100 formal warnings results in about 0.1% greater conservation. Though these figures are small in percentage terms, they represent potentially large volumes of water. An average of 500 more warnings each month during the observation period would have reduced the state’s total water consumption by 29 billion gallons—enough to supply the City of San Francisco for 15 months.
So are penalties pointless?
Does that mean that penalties don’t work? Not necessarily. It’s likely that the positive effects of warnings depend on the threat of penalties. Also, a $500 penalty might be an insufficient incentive for conservation in utilities where penalties were imposed. If you’re a rich celebrity, you might not care about a $500 fine enough to stop wasting water. Without detailed data on individual violations (which we don’t have), it’s hard to say.
In any event, the effects of all enforcement actions were apparently short-lived. Enforcement actions were most influential early in the drought emergency, when climatic conditions were most severe. As the drought weakened, the influence of enforcement also declined. The effects of all three types of enforcement actions appear to be negligible in the long run.
Lessons for conservation
We need to do more work to make sure we have the analysis right and to tease out all of the temporal effects, but our findings to date suggest three preliminary takeaways:
- Formal warnings are most effective in driving overall conservation; and
- Warnings can lead to immediate conservation during an emergency; but
- Enforcement effects decline in the long run, and so probably don’t help promote conservation as a “way of life.”