Devils (and angels) in the details, Part 3
In early January the California Water Board released its draft proposal for a statewide low-income water bill assistance program. My last couple posts summarized the proposal and discussed the perverse incentives for rate design that the subsidy might create. Continuing the theme of unintended consequences, this one looks at what the statewide assistance program might mean for poor-performing small water systems.
All else equal, when it comes to water systems, bigger is better. Water and sewer systems require big infrastructure investments and lots of operating costs to work. When those costs can be spread across large numbers of people and businesses, the average price of water is lower. That makes utilities textbook examples of economies of scale.
Less obviously, the organizations that operate utilities also are subject to economies of scale. Larger organizations can hire and retain higher-quality employees and maintain specialized personnel. As my past research work with David Switzer has shown, these advantages help larger water systems take advantage of human capital in ways that smaller systems can’t.
Larger systems also enjoy significant financial advantages. Larger customer bases tend to be more economically diverse, providing a degree of financial stability to a utility. Financial markets favor large utilities, too, allowing them access to finance capital at lower interest rates than their smaller cousins.
Thing is, just as in the rest of the United States, most of California’s water utilities are really, really small. More than three quarters of California’s 2,800 water systems serve fewer than 3,300 people, but collectively serve just 2% of the state’s population. Meanwhile, the 183 largest systems serve 80% of the state’s population.
Small system struggles
Unfortunately, small systems tend to suffer disproportionately from poor water quality. Here’s the correlation* between annual Safe Drinking Water Act health violations and utility size in California, based on EPA data from 2010-2018:
Affordability also correlates with system size. So do poverty, income, and unemployment. My recent analysis of water and sewer rates nationwide shows that, all else equal, both AR20 and HM decline as utilities increase in size—that is, on average, water and sewer affordability gets better as utilities get bigger.
That small systems struggle is no secret, and California has in recent years sought to encourage system consolidation through a variety of carrots and sticks. The process is slow, however, and fraught with political conflict. Consolidation is not a panacea, and there are plenty of struggling large and medium-sized systems. But the data are clear on this point: on average, with water utilities, bigger is better.
Props and levers
What does all this have to do with low-income assistance? The proposed program would transfer significant resources from relatively affluent to relatively poor communities. In many cases, those communities are served by the small, perennially underperforming utilities that too often provide lousy water quality at very high prices. Financial pressures from ratepayers are among the strongest incentives for small utilities to consolidate. A low-income assistance program will disproportionately benefit customers of those systems (which is good), but could inadvertently prop up systems that would otherwise move toward consolidation due to financial pressures (which is bad). To some failing small systems, low-income assistance could be financial life support system.
But if structured correctly and implemented carefully, low-income water assistance could help drive small system consolidation. Financial assistance for low-income customers could make consolidation more attractive for the larger utilities and private firms that might otherwise be reluctant to take on the responsibility for troubled small systems with less affluent customers. More directly, the state could make assistance funds contingent on consolidation or compliance with SDWA management requirements. Statewide assistance might be a potent lever to push recalcitrant small systems toward consolidation and its blessings.
That’s why statewide low-income water bill assistance should not be considered in isolation, but rather as part of a comprehensive strategy to improve water systems. The same applies to any plan for a national water affordability assistance program.
Whether a statewide assistance program would prop up failing small systems or lever them into consolidation and sustainability will depend in large part on the administrative structures and processes used to implement the program. I’ll take up those administrative angels and devils in my next post.
*Fitted with a negative binomial regression.
†There are probably another dozen or so studies that I could link here.
The Garden State has quietly enacted a law that could transform water infrastructure in America.
Signed during Governor Christie’s waning days in office, New Jersey’s 2017 Water Quality Accountability Act (WQAA) introduced a series regulations requiring local water utilities to develop asset management plans, report on infrastructure conditions, and reinvestment adequately in their systems. For outsiders to the water sector, the WQAA might seem like a set of narrow, technocratic rules. But it’s really much, much more—not because of the rules themselves, but because the data that the rules will generate can change the way that people think about the crucial but unseen systems that sustain American cities.
A renaissance artifact in a German village helps explain why.
Drinking water and credit claiming
While Governor Christie was signing the WQAA, my wife and I were sightseeing in Germany. There we visited Wertheim, a small town nestled on the banks of a river. Right in the village square stands the Engelsbrunnen, or “Angel’s Well.” The village has been there since the 8th century, but this well was constructed in 1574. The well’s construction transformed life in the village—before the well was built, villagers had to walk 100 yards down to the river to fetch water.
But the really interesting thing about this well is the structure that surrounds it. This wasn’t just a utilitarian bit of public works—it was, and remains, a jewel at the heart of the village. It’s named for the twin angel sculpture at the top of the structure, but what really stands out is the sculpture in front, at eye-level:
That is the mayor of Wertheim in 1574. He didn’t just want his people to have water, he wanted them to know who delivered it. And every day, when the villagers filled their pails of water, they’d do so standing face to face with the image of the mayor who built it. For Wertheim, the well was a major improvement in quality-of-life. For the Mayor, the Engelsbrunnen was what political scientists call a credit-claiming opportunity.
Politicians then, like politicians now, like to claim credit for good things. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, modern drinking water systems provided politicians with ample credit-claiming opportunities. And with good reason! Drinking water systems are amazing! They are the everyday miracles of the modern age.
Blame avoidance and infrastructure neglect
Unfortunately the politics of American drinking water have changed. For decades Americans have had the luxury of taking drinking water for granted. Maintaining or upgrading drinking water systems doesn’t offer the same kind of credit-claiming opportunity as building them.
When the public takes water for granted, leaders fear anger over rate increases, which they must balance against the fear of a disaster. As National Association of Water Companies CEO Rob Powelson put it: “No president or governor wants to have a Flint Water Crisis on their hands.”
That’s what political scientists call blame avoidance.
The thing is, blame-avoidance isn’t a very good motivator for infrastructure investment. If my political goal is to avoid blame for a disaster, then my tradeoff is tax or rate increases today vs. the risk of disaster on my watch. Rate increases today are immediately visible and unpopular; to politicians, the risk of disaster can feel remote—my successor’s problem, not mine.
From fear of failure to expectation of excellence
That’s where New Jersey’s WQAA has the chance to transform the politics of drinking water. With the data generated under this new law, researchers will be able to trace the full nexus of the relationships between costs, water quality, system performance, and capital reinvestment. We’ll be able to show how to maintain affordability while also maintaining public health and economic prosperity.
But most importantly, all that analysis can make water infrastructure a credit-claiming opportunity again. We’ll be able to quantify the health and environmental benefits that come from water infrastructure, and so give leaders a reason to brag about their investments in these critical systems.
My only gripe with the WQAA is its name: the word “accountability” implies a threat of punishment for failure, rather than opportunity for success. With due respect to the NJ legislature I’d have preferred a different name: the Water Quality Accountability Achievement Act. Water system maintenance, reinvestment, and public reporting on performance shouldn’t be feared as a cause of punishment, but embraced as a chance to celebrate excellence.
Hats off to New Jersey’s water leaders for seizing this moment and blazing a promising trail. New Jersey’s WQAA gives water sector leaders the chance to make this moment an inflection point: the time when water stopped being an afterthought and became a core policy concern again; when the water sector turned away from fear of failure and back to visionary achievement.
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.