Sometimes progress is visible in what you don’t see
Earlier this week I had the pleasure of speaking to the annual conference of the California Water Association, an organization of that state’s investor-owned water utility companies. The theme of the day was affordability. The California Public Utilities Commission and State Water Resources Control Board are working hard to craft rules and guidelines for affordability in the Golden State, with clear implications for the state’s utilities.
During the conference several speakers took to the stage to talk about efforts underway in California to ensure affordability as communities grapple with water infrastructure and supply costs. We heard from utility managers, state agency bureaucrats, and state legislators. These were not dilettantes or casual observers; these were experienced people well-versed in water policy, and I heard lots of exciting things about steps and directions the state and its utilities are taking.
But one of the most exciting things about the conference was something I didn’t hear and didn’t see. In an all-day meeting on the subject of water affordability, nobody mentioned average-bill-as-percent-of-median-household-income.
Indeed, I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I was the first to mention the %MHI standard when I launched into my familiar attack on that miserable metric. I’ve been excoriating that metric in rooms full of water folks since 2006.
I can do it in my sleep. But the attack wasn’t necessary in that room on that day. The audience was receptive to more careful measurement and analysis—even if the results weren’t pretty or comfortable.
Good policy requires good measurement. In the case of water affordability, good measurement begins with abandoning bad measurement. The California water community has apparently taken that first step; maybe it’s a sign that the rest of the nation is ready to follow. The quiet disappearance of a number from conversation might seem like the smallest of small victories, but policy revolutions begin with such changes in analytical frameworks.
Some observations about the new law & what it tells us about the politics of water infrastructure in America
The Senate recently passed the America’s Water Infrastructure Act (AWIA) by a 99-1 vote; today President Trump signed it into law. AWIA is pretty slender as federal infrastructure bills go, weighing in at 332 pages and 70,000 words.
What follows are some thoughts about AWIA’s main water infrastructure provisions and what they tell us about the state of water policy and politics in America. This isn’t really a coherent essay or an exhaustive commentary; it’s a series of cursory observations on the bits that strike me as interesting.
What’s new in Title II
Titles I, III, and IV include some important provisions, but much of it is garden-variety authorizations for sundry projects and studies, along with some light regulatory housekeeping. As a careful observer of water policy, the most interesting parts to me come in Title II—Drinking Water System Improvement.
Sections 2014-2015 have received the most public attention, as they include increases in federal grants along with changes to the State Drinking Water Revolving Fund program. Those funds will help with infrastructure investment, but is really a drop in the trillion-dollar bucket of America’s water infrastructure needs. That money will make a splash ahead of the midterm elections (more on that later), but isn’t all that interesting from a policy perspective.
Here’s what I find most intriguing in Title II:
- Sec. 2001: Indian Reservation Drinking Water. Literally the first section of Title II is a marked expansion of grant programs for tribal drinking water infrastructure—$20 million annually for the next four years.
That isn’t much in the grand scheme of American infrastructure, but it’s potentially huge for some tribal systems. My research with Mellie Haider & David Switzer has found that tribal facilities lag far behind non-tribal facilities in regulatory compliance, in part because tribes weren’t eligible for the vast federal grants available in the 1970s and 1980s. Sec. 2001 is a step toward correcting that. More generally, it’s fascinating that this program is the very first thing in Title II.* Hopefully this prominent spot in the AWIA presages greater efforts to build tribal drinking water capacity.
- Sec. 2002: Intractable Water Systems. In substance, Sec. 2002 isn’t terribly exciting—it just funds a study on water systems that consistently fail to meet regulatory requirements. But this section (along with Sec. 2010, discussed below) signals that Uncle Sam is interested in doing something about perennially poor water systems. Of particular interest are the tens of thousands of small utilities that serve fewer than a thousand customers, many of which lack the financial, physical, and human capacity to operate modern drinking water systems.*
- Sec. 2006-7: School lead testing & drinking fountain replacement. Section 2006 authorizes $75 million over three years to support lead testing in school drinking water lines. Sec. 2007 provides $15 million for school drinking fountain replacement. These programs remain voluntary, however, so its effectiveness will depend on local officials participating proactively. Federalism! As with most aspects of national drinking water policy, this only works insofar as local governments make it work.
- Sec. 2010: Ownership provisions. Innocuously named “Additional Considerations for Compliance,” this section empowers state regulators to “require the owner or operator of a public water system to assess consolidation or transfer of ownership… to achieve compliance with national primary drinking water regulations.” This section is aimed at repeat violators of the Safe Drinking Water Act, and although it’s weak in substance—it doesn’t actually require consolidation or change in ownership—it signals something about the potential direction of future water regulation. More frequent consolidation, privatization, and/or public condemnation of failing water systems may be on the horizon.*
What AWIA tells us about the politics of water infrastructure
AWIA provides more evidence that water infrastructure remains an very hot issue at the moment. A 115th Congress that has been historically contentious—it might struggle to pass a resolution that puppies are cute—just passed an infrastructure law with near consensus. The timing is noteworthy, as well: AWIA arrives just in time for midterm elections. Credit-claiming opportunities abound!
Crucially, none of the funding authorized in AWIA will turn into actual water infrastructure until Congress appropriates funds for it. Conveniently for the 115th Congress, the task of appropriating money for all of that water infrastructure will fall to the 116th.
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.