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.
Lessons from California water conservation, 2019
Tough water times may be back in California. After the Golden State suffered through a historically severe drought from 2012-2017, pleasantly wet weather in 2018-2019 refilled reservoirs and replenished mountain snowpacks. But the state’s drought monitor shows that the past few months have trended drier, and water managers are worried that the state might be slipping back toward another drought.
One fortunate legacy of California’s recent struggles with drought is the California Water Board’s investment in data collection and dissemination. Researchers are learning important lessons about water management from that wealth of data on water consumption and conservation. Complete data for 2019 are now available, and I’ve just had a first look.
Three things emerge from my initial cut at the 2019 data that merit mention against the ominous backdrop of a looming drought.
1. A way of life
California’s overall urban water use remains down significantly from the pre-drought days. The state government established emergency conservation rules during the peak of the drought, cutting statewide urban water consumption by nearly 25%. But Governor Jerry Brown and other leaders also vowed to make water conservation “a way of life” that would extend beyond the emergency.
Californians seem to have taken the goal to heart, at least in aggregate. Though water conservation is not at the zealous peak we saw in 2015-2016, it remains strong:
Falling conservation in 2018 led to some hand-wringing, but conservation rebounded in 2019 to a statewide aggregate 18.1% relative to the state’s official 2013 baseline. That’s pretty remarkable and suggests that much of the reduction in California’s urban water demand is more or less permanent. Absent severe drought or monsoon-like precipitation, California’s overall water conservation will likely remain in the mid-to-high teens for the foreseeable future. That’s a public policy success story.
2. Persistent public-private disparity
One of the most fascinating findings that emerged from my earlier analysis of the California drought with Youlang Zhang and David Switzer was that the state’s private, investor-owned utilities conserved significantly more water than local government utilities during the drought.* We linked that difference in drought response to the institutions that govern water finance. We also found that the public-private conservation gap persisted even after the drought ended, with the greatest disparities during the summer when water demands are at their highest. Back in 2018 your humble blogger forecasted that that “public and private conservation will converge in the spring and diverge again in the summer and autumn.” And indeed, the pattern held: there was essentially no difference between public and private water utility conservation during the winter months, but during the 2018 May-September peak season, California’s investor-owned systems saved more water than their local government counterparts.
Did the pattern persist in 2019? In short, yes:
As you can see, public and private utility conservation move in pretty close parallel. During the non-peak period (January-April and October-December), there is essentially no difference in average conservation by ownership. But a public-private gap emerged again during the May-September peak period. In 2018 the difference was 2.3%; in 2019 the gap was smaller—investor-owned utilities saved an average of 1.5% more water than local governments. To give that percentage some context, think of it this way: if public utilities saved at the same rate as private utilities in 2019, the difference would have been about 15 billion gallons, roughly equivalent to the City of Long Beach’s annual water consumption.
The public-private disparity in summertime conservation now also appears to be a way of life in California. The difference is almost certainly related to pricing and revenue. Decoupling über alles.
3. Indoor outpacing outdoor?Finally, the five years of data now in front of us show how California’s urban water conservation relates to overall seasonal demand. In 2015, when severe outdoor irrigation restrictions were in effect for much of California, 70% of the state’s conservation came from reduced demand in the peak season. Since then, the share of peak season consumption has fallen to about half:
In 2019 non-peak conservation crept up to 52% of overall savings. It’s hard to infer exactly what’s driving this pattern from aggregated monthly data, but the picture suggests that the most persistent water savings seen in California over the past five years has come from indoor efficiency. Average water consumption in 2019 was about 98 gallons per person per day (gpcd), but some cities are far lower. For example, water demand in conservative San Francisco shows hardly any seasonal peak at all, and averages just 42 gpcd—a level approaching the theoretical minimum to sustain developed world conditions.
While there are probably still plenty of savings to be had from indoor efficiency, meeting the challenge of another potential drought year—and driving further sustainable conservation—will require tackling peak demands through pricing and regulation. Get ready for another year of water cops and rate revolts.
© 2020 Manny Teodoro
Understanding progressive & regressive water pricing
By Antonio & Manny Teodoro
How do utilities distribute the costs of drinking water systems to their customers in their rate structures?
The answer is surprisingly complicated, and water utility pricing is often weird. There are lots of other wrinkles and variations, but the vast majority of utilities use one of three basic rate structures:
- Uniform, where customers pay the same price for every unit of water that they consume;
- Inclining block, which charge higher prices as volume increases; and
- Declining block, which charge lower prices as volume increases.
It’s easy to see that these different rate structures distribute costs differently, but how much differently isn’t immediately obvious. How do a utility’s rates apply to low-volume customers compared with high-volume customers?
The answer is important because it carries significant implications for affordability and conservation. It also speaks to risk tolerance and questions about fairness. Water is an unusual consumer good because its use is very different at different volumes. For residential customers, low volumes are mostly used for basic needs like drinking, cooking, cleaning and sanitation. Higher volumes are usually for more discretionary uses like lawn irrigation and car washing.Studies of water rate structures typically put them into the three main categories (uniform, inclining, and declining), which is fine, but can mask some important variation within the inclining and declining blocks. Consider four imaginary rate structures:
A and B are both inclining block rates, but A is more progressive than B because prices increase sharply for A as volume increases. Similarly, C and D are both declining block structures, but C is more regressive than D because C discounts higher volumes much more than D.
David Switzer developed a way to measure water rate progressivity to reflect that variation, and published a paper last year that uses regression slopes to measure relative progressivity. It’s a creative, rigorous, and smart methodology, but it’s pretty sophisticated and not the easiest approach for communicating with the general public.
In search of a valid but more intuitive way to communicate the idea of progressivity, we struck upon the idea of comparing average unit costs of water at relatively conservative and very high benchmark volumes. What would be appropriate comparative volumes? And how could we frame the measurement in an engaging way?
Enter Amy Poehler
Amy Poehler was a particularly profligate water customer. In the summer of 2015, while drought ravaged the Golden State, the Parks & Recreation star’s Beverly Hills home used 85,000 gallons a month. Meanwhile, a family of four that is fairly conservative with water uses something like 6,000 gallons per month for drinking, cooking, and sanitation.* In other words, Poehler’s home consumed in about two days enough water to comfortably supply a family of four for a month.
Shaming celebrities for bad environmental behavior is now something of a ritual in America, and it’s not clear whether exposing excess actually helps. But Poehler’s water consumption provides a convenient benchmark for excess.
The Amy Poehler Index
So to measure progressivity we calculate the total monthly water and sewer bill—including both fixed and volumetric charges—for a customer at 6,000 gallons (a conservative family) and at 85,000 gallons (Amy Poehler’s family), then divide that price by each customer’s total volume. These are average unit costs. The ratio of the two unit prices is the Amy Poehler Index (API). A value of 1.0 means that Amy Poehler and the conservative family pay exactly the same unit price for water. Values less than 1.0 indicate regressive rates (Amy Poehler pays less than a conservative family), and values greater than 1.0 indicate progressive rates (Amy Poehler pays more than a conservative family).
Let’s look at how this works for a couple of large U.S. city water systems under their 2019 rates:
In 2019 Tampa’s fixed monthly charge for water was just $1.50, with no fixed charge at all for sewer. Under Tampa’s inclined five-block rate structure, Amy Poehler would pay $617.82 monthly, while our conservative family would pay just $19.29. On a unit cost basis, those prices equal $7.27 and $3.22 per thousand gallons, respectively. The resulting API is a progressive 2.26.Meanwhile, in 2019 Philadelphia charged its customers a fixed $5.12 for water and $7.04 for sewer each month. The City of Brotherly Love then applied declining block water rates that would have charged Amy Poehler $455.69 monthly, and the conservative household $41.10—more than twice the Tampa bill for the same volume. The resulting unit costs turn out to be $5.36 for Amy Poehler and $6.85 for our conservative family, for a regressive API of .78.
The National Progressivity Picture
We used data from the Teodoro & Saywitz 2019 affordability update to calculate API for a nationally representative sample of 399 U.S. water and sewer systems. Average combined water and sewer rates were slightly regressive at .88, but ranged widely from .07 in Anchorage, AK to 3.81 in Phoenix, AZ.
API isn’t as precise as Switzer’s progressivity coefficient, but in our national dataset the two metrics correlate pretty well (ρ=.71). More importantly, the API offers an easy way to understand and improve the ways that communities distribute costs through their rate structures. That seems like the sort of thing Leslie Knope would probably dig.