From Infrastructure

Answering the Bell

Social science and defying the choice between clean and affordable water

Thomas Hearns, the Motor City Cobra. One of my all-time favorites. 

Warning: sports cliché coming.

Boxing is more popular as a literary metaphor than as a spectator sport these days. Still, I’m a boxing fan. The combination of athleticism, strategy, and drama of the sport are unrivaled.

Every fighter wants to win, naturally. But there’s no shame in losing a hard-fought bout to a tough opponent. When you take on great opponents, sometimes you lose—on the scorecards, by stoppage, or by knockout. Fans greatly respect unbeaten fighters, but revere those who risk a blemished record to take on the toughest challengers. Most beloved are those who suffer early knockdowns to come back and win. The one kind of loss that boxing fans can’t abide is quitting on the stool: when a fighter chooses not to continue—not because he’s injured, not because his trainer decides he can’t win, but because he lacks the will to continue.

Technical triumph, political pessimism

Last month I participated in an all-day meeting with a group of professors from across the country, all of whom work on drinking water and water quality. We were hashing out a vision for future research to advance the water sector. I was one of just two social scientists in the room; the rest were civil, chemical, and environmental engineers. It was a stimulating and productive day.

But a remark by a renowned professor emeritus from one of America’s top schools of environmental engineering startled me, and has been nagging at me ever since.

We are facing a future where we’ll simply need to accept higher levels of pollution,” he said. The Clean Water Act’s vision of fishable-and-swimmable waters was unattainable, he argued. His pessimism was not due to the emergence of new, impossibly difficult contaminants or technological barriers. The obstacles to clean water he identified were political and economic: the country simply wouldn’t pay for solutions to pollution.  I’m not sure if all his fellow engineers agreed, but more than one head nodded in agreement.

Such pessimism is ironic, coming from an environmental engineer.

These signs used to be more common

Speculative augmentation

One of the most astonishing things about the 1972 Clean Water Act and 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act is that, at the time Congress passed them, nobody really knew how any of it was going to work. The technology needed to achieve fishable-and-swimmable and to ensure safe drinking water nationwide simply didn’t exist at the time. Political scientist Charles Jones called this process speculative augmentation: politicians called for a cleaner environment, and entrusted the bureaucracy and the emerging field of environmental engineering to figure out how to deliver it.

Amazingly, it basically worked. The 20th century was an unprecedented period of advancement for water—it was nothing short of a triumph. Water utilities, sanitary sewers, and stormwater management saved more lives than all the world’s hospitals, and has done more to improve quality of life than any other economic policy. For all their problems, the CWA and SDWA have been pivotal in making those improvements in America. We owe much of that success to engineering research.

Environmental science and social science

The greatest water quality challenges of the 20th century were chemical, biological, and physical. Those challenges remain, and new water quality threats emerge all the time. But the most formidable obstacles ahead are social and political. We know how to handle water contaminants. We don’t know nearly as much about overcoming political barriers to water quality. That isn’t a reason to despair, it’s a reason to refocus.

Medical researchers aren’t paid to declare that diseases are incurable; water researchers shouldn’t counsel acceptance of pollution because politics are hard.

We are a prosperous and resourceful people. I refuse to choose between water quality and affordability. To do so would be to consign society’s most vulnerable and future generations to suffer because we couldn’t or wouldn’t solve institutional problems. If dysfunctional politics force such choices, then we need rigorous, hard-headed research on water politics, policy, management, and finance to overcome them. There are lots of smart and insightful social scientists working on water; we need more. We need another moment of speculative augmentation, this time with social science finding the path forward.

The clean water fight’s not over—we’ve only just started the middle rounds.

Never quit on the stool.

Cheeseburgers & water bills

Why water utility service can be simultaneously underpriced and unaffordable

Analysis of water and sewer affordability implies a concern that the prices of these critical services might be too high. At the same time, decades of research by resource economists argues that, in much of the United States, water is actually underpriced—that is, people and businesses pay far less than the actual economic value of the water that they use, which can cause inefficiently high water use.

Paradoxically, both can be true: it is possible for water to be simultaneously underpriced and unaffordable. That’s because not all water use is the same.

Water and cheeseburgers

Consider cheeseburgers. There’s really only one reason to buy a cheeseburger: to eat it.

Personal favorite—Dick’s on Broadway

Whether I buy one cheeseburger or ten, they’re really only good for one thing. I can eat them all by myself, I can share them with other people, I can feed them to my dog. Like any other good, cheeseburgers are subject to diminishing marginal benefit, but a cheeseburger’s end use is the same no matter what.*

Water utilities are different. When a utility delivers water to a home, that water can be used for essential needs like drinking, cooking, cleaning, and sanitation. It can also be used for more discretionary needs, such as car washing, filling swimming pools, and irrigating lush lawns. In most of the United States, residential water demand follows a familiar seasonal pattern, which makes it easy to discern, roughly, the relationship between essential and discretionary water use.

Essential water use remains roughly even throughout the year because it is, well, essential. That essential use is also the source of most residential sewage flow. Discretionary water use tends to fluctuate seasonally: car washing, lawn watering, and pool filling happen when the weather is warm and rain is rare. Sure, people might drink or shower a bit more often in the summer, but the real bump in demand comes from these discretionary outdoor uses. That’s also when water is most scarce.

Inexpensive and unaffordable

Unlike cheeseburger demand, residential water demand represents qualitatively different uses of water at different points in the demand curve. People with large lawns and swimming pools complain (often loudly, and to great political effect) when their water bills run to hundreds or thousands of dollars, but public policy discussions about water affordability are generally concerned with essential use.

Thing is, utilities build their supply, storage, treatment, and distribution systems to meet those peak demands. If systems were designed only to meet essential needs, they’d be much smaller and less expensive. The overwhelming majority of the costs of building and maintaining those systems are fixed—the utility incurs the costs whether it delivers a single gallon or 10 million gallons a day. With rare exceptions, American utilities meet residential customers’ essential and discretionary demands through the same meters. Consequently, essential and discretionary water uses both fall under a single price schedule.

Often the result is that discretionary water use is inefficiently underpriced, but essential use is still unaffordable for low-income households.

That’s why rate structures matter so much for both affordability and efficiency. In an era of falling average demand, many utilities are shifting their rate revenue burden away from high volume charges to fixed monthly charges and/or low volumetric charges. That’s good for revenue stability, but can exacerbate the double problem of unaffordable essential water use and inefficient underpricing of discretionary water use.

*If there are alternative productive uses of cheeseburgers, I’m unaware of them.


Hyperopia at the tap

hyperopia (hīˌpə-rōˈpē-ə). n. A condition in which visual images come to a focus behind the retina of the eye and vision is better for distant than for near objects

Last week I had the pleasure of speaking at the Connecticut AWWA’s annual conference. There I shared a the stage with a team from Providence Water, who told the story of their city’s struggles with lead contamination in drinking water. One of the most surprising things about Providence’s experience is the way that its customers apparently responded to the Flint water crisis.

Lead in Providence

Lead contamination in drinking water is a long-standing problem in Providence. Like many older American cities, Providence has many buildings with lead plumbing. As in Flint, Providence’s water system requires careful corrosion control in its treatment process to limit the release of lead into the drinking water supply. Lead contamination has been detected consistently in Providence’s water system since testing began in 1992—usually hovering just below EPA’s action level of 15 ppb—but it spiked to 30 ppb in 2009 and again in 2013, prompting increased regulatory scrutiny.* According to last week’s presentation, at least one Providence test site yielded lead contamination greater than 200 ppb—far higher than the levels that sparked outrage in Flint. Unlike Flint, where leaders denied and obfuscated lead contamination, Providence has publicly acknowledged and taken steps to address the issue: they’ve changed maintenance protocols and treatment methods, and introduced programs to replace lead service lines in its system.

As part of that effort, in 2014 Providence Water began offering drinking water lead testing for $10 to any customer who wanted it (earlier this year they started offering testing for free). In providing this service the utility also gathers valuable data on its own system. Initial participation in this voluntary testing regime was moderate, with an average of 4.7 customers requesting testing each month over the first two years of the program.

Hydro hyperopia

Then something unexpected happened in 2016: Participation in Providence’s lead testing program skyrocketed—after the Flint Water Crisis grabbed national headlines. Water contamination in Flint made Americans everywhere reconsider what comes out of their own taps. The figure below plots monthly voluntary lead testing in Providence from 2014-2017 (blue line); the utility mails its testing brochure in the May/June billing cycle, and so testing jumps in June and July each year.** The graph also shows monthly average Google News Index for coverage of the lead crisis in Flint (red line). Providence Water’s own lead contamination issues emerged in 2009, but when Flint put drinking water into the national spotlight in 2016, Providence citizens took action locally.

Are the people of Providence responding to events in Flint? It’s impossible to be certain, but the circumstantial evidence is strongly suggestive. A lead crisis 700 miles away apparently caused a 400% increase in lead testing participation by focusing Rhode Islanders’ attention on the contamination that they’d been living with for decades.

Focusing event

The water crisis in Flint is the Cuyahoga River fire of our generation: an event that thrust a widespread but underappreciated problem into the national consciousness. Political scientists call these focusing events: harmful, high-profile occurrences that suddenly put previously obscure issues onto the public policy agenda. One important consequence of the newfound attention to drinking water quality is that citizens everywhere think differently about their own utilities and drinking water. They may not deserve it, but utilities everywhere must now grapple with the Flint Water Crisis’ awful legacy. The effects of the Flint Water Crisis on the people of Providence, Rhode Island show such events afar can transform citizens’ interactions with their own local governments.

*No level of lead is healthy according to the CDC, especially for young children.

**Thanks to Providence Water for providing these data.