Water Sector Reform #2:
Regulatory Transparency & Fairness
With a major federal investment in water infrastructure possibly on the horizon, the United States has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to leverage that money into transformational, institutional solutions for America’s water sector. This is the second in a series of five posts outlining five broad ideas to reform the management, governance, and regulation of U.S. drinking water, sewer, and stormwater systems. The first proposed reform was consolidation of water utilities.
The second proposed reform is an overhaul of the processes and institutions that regulate water system finance using regulatory models from New Jersey and Wisconsin. The goal of this reform is not to regulate water quality directly, but rather to change the incentives for the organizations that operate water systems.
The need for regulatory reforms follow from the ownership structure of the U.S. water sector.
Another important way in which water is different from energy and other utilities is ownership. The overwhelming majority of Americans get their electricity and/or gas from a private, investor-owned firm, with small minorities receiving service from government utilities. But water is a different story: about 88% of Americans get their drinking water service from a local government, with about 12% served by private firms.
Ownership is crucial because different institutions govern private and public systems, creating different incentives for infrastructure investment.
Public Utilities Commissions
Let’s start with the private sector. The profit motive, constrained by regulation, drives management of investor-owned utilities.
Private utilities of all kinds—water, energy, telecom, whatever—are operated by corporate managers in the interests of their shareholders. But utilities are natural monopolies, and so we can’t count on free markets to guide investment and pricing. Instead, prices are not set by the companies themselves, but rather by the state Public Utilities Commissions (PUCs). The PUCs require utilities to report publicly their asset management plans and financial records in order to justify their pricing. PUC-regulated systems must also report a variety of performance data, which commissioners scrutinize to ensure that utilities are maintaining adequate service.
PUCs allow private utilities to set prices based on the amount of capital they invest in the system: the more capital invested, the more revenue they earn. That can create an incentive for private utilities to over-invest in infrastructure because those investments allow them to raise rates—a problem known as the Averch-Johnson Effect. Much of what the PUCs do is scrutinize all those investments to ensure that they’re justified and that utilities aren’t gold-plating their systems. In other words, PUCs act to prevent over-investment in utility capital.
But remember, that’s only about 12% of the water sector.
The overwhelming majority of water service is provided by local governments—usually cities, counties, towns, villages, authorities, and special districts. These systems are managed by local bureaucrats, with investment and pricing decisions made by local elected officials. For all the talk about federal funding, U.S. water infrastructure investment is mainly a function of local politics.
Local politics are unkind to water infrastructure because the price of water is much more visible than the quality of water. As in all things, people generally like high quality and low prices. Thing is, most contaminants in water are invisible. Unless my water is so bad that I can smell or taste it, unless there are frequent an ongoing outages and main breaks, I really have no idea how good my water system is. Unlike roads and bridges, water systems are literally buried.
But the price of water is easily observable. Voters may not know what contaminants are in the water, but they know for sure what they pay for it when they get the bill each month.
Now suppose I’m an elected official who wants to please my voters. If I make decisions that maintain or improve water quality, that’s good! Alas, my voters may not recognize the improvement. But quality improvement might cause prices to increase, which is bad because higher prices are immediately visible to voters.
But blame avoidance isn’t good for infrastructure investment. That’s a big part of why all those facilities built back in the 1970s and 80s are crumbling today. Back when the CWA and SDWA sent hundreds of billions of dollars to local governments, the idea was never for the US government to own and operate water systems. The goal was for Uncle Sam to help get those systems up and running in compliance with the new environmental laws. Local governments were then supposed to take over responsibility for those systems. In too many cases political forces have led local officials to run those systems to failure. Local politicians don’t neglect water infrastructure because they’re stupid; they do it because they’re responsive to voters.
Jersey to the Rescue?
In 2017 New Jersey passed the Water Quality Accountability Act (WQAA), which requires all water utilities—both government and investor-owned—to develop asset management plans, report on infrastructure conditions, and reinvest adequately in their systems. Rule-making to implement the new law is still under way, but what the WQAA requires of all water systems is similar to what PUCs already require of investor-owned utilities: transparency about infrastructure conditions, evidence that they are managing assets responsibly, and evidence of system performance.
Making all that system information transparent can make water’s quality as visible at its price. We can make water infrastructure a credit-claiming opportunity for local officials, not just a blame-avoidance game. Mayors seeking reelection should point at their cities’ water system performance with pride, not merely seek to duck responsibility for rate increases.
Meanwhile, in Madison…
A thousand miles away, Wisconsin employs a unique regulatory system that’s a perfect complement to New Jersey’s new law. All fifty states and the District of Columbia have Public Utilities Commissions, but Wisconsin is the only state where all systems—public and private—are subject to PUC financial regulation. That is, Wisconsin local governments must get approval of their rates from the PUC (or the Public Services Commission, as they call it there).
As with other utilities commissions, the traditional role of the Wisconsin PSC with respect to rates is to guard against over-pricing by private monopolies. But in the case of local government utilities, the PSC’s authority could include New Jersey-style asset management requirements and a guard against underpricing due to inadequate reinvestment. At the same time, the PSC provides something of a shield for local leaders. As a 2012 Alliance for Water Efficiency report observed:
“The Wisconsin Public Service Commission regulates both public and private water systems, and assumes the responsibility for approving all changes to water rate-making in the state. Thus, the political ‘heat’ is off at the local level and water systems can more easily approach the PSC for needed changes to their revenue structures.”
In theory, if a utility isn’t adequately investing in maintenance and upgrades, the Wisconsin PSC might actually be able to compel rate increases. (I’m not sure that’s ever actually happened).
Together, the Garden State’s new WQAA and the Badger State’s PSC authority over local governments would be a potent regulatory combination. So my second proposed reform is to require comprehensive asset management and performance reporting for all water utilities (as in New Jersey), and to extend PUC pricing regulation to government utilities (as in Wisconsin). The idea is broadly consistent with Australia’s model for urban water price regulation. As with my other proposed reforms, achieving such a significant overhaul to the nation’s regulatory institutions will require federal leverage.
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 incentives for sound management of water systems.
Water Sector Reform #1: Consolidation
With a major federal investment in water infrastructure possibly on the horizon, the United States has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to leverage that money into reforms to transform America’s water sector. This is the first in a series of posts outlining five broad proposed reforms.
The first is consolidation and regionalization of water utilities. This is the single most important, badly-needed reform. Without this reform, any major federal investment will be a temporary fix, and the rest of my proposed reforms probably won’t work without it. To understand why, start with a simple observation:
There are WAY too many water systems
One of the things that really surprises newcomers to the American water sector is just how many water systems there are. The energy sector provides a useful comparison. In the United States today there are about 3,200 electrical utilities and about 1,400 gas utilities. There are about 50,000 community water systems.
These systems are highly skewed in size. It turns out that 40,000 of those 50,000 are very small, serving populations fewer than 3,300. These small systems serve less than 10% of the population, but they are 80% of the total systems. A little more than half of the US population gets its water from the largest thousand utilities.
It’s difficult to overstate the effects of this extreme fragmentation. Virtually every aspect of America’s water sector is worse because there are so many tiny systems that lack the capacity to operate effectively.
Small systems, big problems
America’s water problems aren’t only in small systems, but there’s no question that small water systems are disproportionately plagued by poor water quality. Here’s the relationship between system size and violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act’s heath standards:
As you can see, violations are strongly related to system size. In small systems it’s not uncommon for utilities to have multiple violations, year in and year out. This graph is from my own analysis w/David Switzer, but study after study after study after study after study finds this same relationship. Here’s the same plot for sewer treatment plants and NPDES permit noncompliance the Clean Water Act, from a study I did with Mellie Haider and David Switzer:
High prices, too
Adding insult to injury, water is also more expensive in small systems. Small systems pay more for capital, they have fewer customers to share the fixed costs, and they’re more vulnerable to revenue fluctuations, which limits their flexibility in rate design. Here’s the relationship between the price of basic monthly water and sewer service for a family of four (about 6,000 gallons a month) measured in hours of labor at minimum wage.*
Water and sewer services are most expensive in small systems, and get cheaper as systems grow. So with both quality and price, there’s strong evidence that there are huge economies of scale to the water sector. These economies of scale are well-understood.
Regulatory economies of scale
But there’s another, less obvious and more pernicious problem with all these small systems: all that fragmentation creates practical problems for regulators. Every one of those 50,000 systems has to be managed, monitored, and regulated by the EPA, in conjunction with more than a hundred state, territorial, and tribal bureaucracies. 50,000 systems means 50,000 sites to visit, 50,000 files to keep current, and 50,000 records to report. State regulatory offices don’t have the information systems—let alone the legions of workers—to handle all that work.
A well-kept secret of the water sector is that small systems are held to much lower standards than larger systems. It’s not just that enforcement is lax with small systems; the agencies that regulate water actually have different enforcement guidelines for small systems, with less stringent standards.
The good intention that paved the way to this particular hell is the recognition that small systems often lack the organizational capacity to comply with the rules. Water regulations are unfunded mandates. Rather than continuously slamming small systems for their violations, regulators move the goalposts, or simply look the other way when violations occur. So the correlation we see between size and SDWA and CWA violations actually grossly understates the real relationship between scale and water quality. Intentionally lax enforcement consigns people served by small systems—often poorer, rural populations—to heightened health risks and poor environmental quality.
Shrink by Growing
These problems are widely recognized. Sure, there are some excellent small systems, and small system operators often achieve remarkable things with limited resources. But the data are clear, and the stakes are high. The common sense solution is to reduce the number of systems through consolidation: shrink the number of systems by growing utility organizations.
Consolidation can happen when multiple systems merge, a bigger utility takes over a smaller one, or when an investor-owned firm buys up small systems. The right consolidation approach will vary from one place to another; we ought to be agnostic with respect to the institutional form. Physically integrated utility systems are best where possible, but small systems can be folded into larger organizations even when they’re physically separate. That is, multiple small systems can be operated by a single organization. Several government and investor-owned utilities already operate under this model.
But it’s hard. Consolidation efforts often face fierce political resistance, either from communities who fear losing control or from staff who fear losing jobs. Sometimes it’s difficult to find larger utilities willing to take on the responsibility for a small, failing systems. Consolidation is controversial in the water sector; in certain circles “consolidation” is a dirty word. I’ve heard privately from multiple regulatory officials that they desperately want consolidation, but are afraid even to utter the word “consolidation” in public. Sometimes it’s just hard to navigate the legal and financial complexities of consolidation. Consolidation has been agonizingly slow in Connecticut; four years after passing a law to promote small system consolidation in California, little has happened.
Tastier carrots, bigger sticks
Shrinking the number of systems is the single best thing we can do to improve water infrastructure in America. So my first proposal is to reduce the number of water utilities by an order of magnitude—to something like 5,000-10,000 utilities—by 2030. As is often the case in public life, moral appeal and clear empirical evidence have been insufficient to overcome the political barriers to consolidation. That’s where federal leverage can make a difference.
Federal funding for local water, sewer, and stormwater systems must be contingent on consolidation. Let’s spend money to fix failing systems, but only if the fixes put them on a path to self-sufficiency. Low-interest loan programs probably aren’t sufficient to induce consolidation; hundreds of billions in federal grants would be a whole lot more appealing. For small systems, federal grants must be awarded only with consolidation. For larger systems, federal grants should be awarded only to utilities that agree to takeover nearby or adjacent smaller systems. Consolidation can be technically, legally, and financially complicated, so federal funding should also provide technical assistance to support the process.
A key corollary to that federal largess is a leveling of the regulatory playing field. There must be one rule book: all water and sewer systems must be held to the same standards. No more loosening the rules for small systems because they lack the organizational capacity to comply with environmental regulations. If systems lack the capacity to comply with the rules, then regulators should be empowered to force consolidation for systems that fail perennially.
Next time I’ll turn to the second major proposal: a change in regulatory transparency aimed at changing the local politics of water infrastructure.
*You can see a bunch more analysis of affordability here.
A trillion-dollar federal infrastructure package and a chance to reform the water sector
– Warning: mixed metaphors ahead –
Observers of America’s water, sewer, and stormwater systems have known for years that the nation faces a trillion-plus-dollar bill for repairs, replacements, and upgrades. I’ve long been skeptical about the prospect of federal funding alleviating that burden in any significant way. With Congress ideologically divided and its chambers split across parties, the idea of a major infrastructure program coming out of Washington would seem unlikely on its face.
But rumblings over the past eighteen months have made me reconsider. Last spring the White House released an infrastructure plan that called for significant investments in water.*
Just before the 2018 mid-term elections, Congress passed the bipartisan America’s Water Infrastructure Act, which signaled federal priorities for the water sector but stopped short of sending tens of billions into the nation’s pipes and canals. Then last week President Trump met with House Speaker Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Schumer and apparently agreed in principle on a $1-2 trillion federal infrastructure program.†
Little is known about the dimensions of the program, beyond the eye-popping figures. What might a huge federal infrastructure package mean for the water sector?
Back to an afterthought?
Transportation is the politician’s perennial infrastructure darling, as “roads and bridges” (Rosenbrigez) offer excellent credit-claiming opportunities for politicians who like to associate themselves with gleaming, highly visible projects. President Trump has made a career of putting his name on buildings, so we shouldn’t be surprised that he’d like to put his name on some Rosenbrigez, too. Although Pelosi and Schumer’s letter on infrastructure to the White House last week mentions “broadband, water, energy, schools, [and] housing,” transportation continues to grab the headlines: Time’s glibly declared that all $2 trillion was for Rosenbridgez.
Although water, sewer, and flood control systems are arguably more vital, much of that infrastructure is literally buried. Politicians aren’t clamoring to put their names on sewage treatment plants. Creating credit-claiming opportunities for water infrastructure is an ongoing challenge. If Washington is really going to pour hundreds of billions of dollars into infrastructure, water sector leaders will need to work hard to make sure their systems aren’t forsaken in favor of sexier transportation projects.
The promise & perils of fiscal federalism
Let’s assume for blogging’s sake that the water sector gets some major love (say, >$300 billion) in a trillion-dollar infrastructure bill. When contemplating such a massive federal capital infusion, it’s worth considering the last time Uncle Sam poured hundreds of billions into the water sector. The 1972 Clean Water Act and 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act included grants that provided as much as 90% matches for local investments in water and sewer infrastructure. The political genius behind the CWA and SDWA was that sweeping new environmental mandates came with considerable sweeteners in the form of federally-funded jobs in construction and environmental engineering. The federal funding made the new regulations politically palatable. From a policy perspective, the idea was for the federal funding to help create systems that local governments would operate, maintain, and upgrade in perpetuity.
Unfortunately, it hasn’t worked that way. One of the main reasons so much of America’s water infrastructure is in trouble is that there are strong structural disincentives for local leaders to invest adequately in water systems, as I’ve observed before. Maintaining water infrastructure doesn’t offer much of a credit-claiming opportunity, and local officials worry a great deal about being blamed for rate increases. Many of the organizations that operate water systems are ill-suited to the task; the institutions that govern and regulate water infrastructure are badly fragmented and often ineffective.
Attaching some strings
A federal water infrastructure funding package that fails to address the systemic factors that got us into this mess would be a wasted opportunity. Hundreds of billions of dollars might help shore up failing systems today, but would simply kick the problem down a generation: our children and grandchildren would face a similar infrastructure crisis in 2070, and justifiably curse their forebearers.
Rather than simply firing a money cannon at local water systems, federal leaders should use a massive funding package as leverage to reform the institutions that govern, regulate, and finance water infrastructure in America. In future posts I’ll explore some of the strings that Congress might consider attaching to their water infrastructure dollars.
*President Trump has since disowned his own plan. 🙄
†Still unclear is the small matter of how to raise a couple trillion dollars. Donald, Nancy, and Chuck are supposed to meet about that soon.