Water Sector Reform #4: Human Capital
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 a structural transformation of America’s water sector. This is the fourth in a series of five posts outlining broad proposals 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 was an overhaul of financial regulation; the third was investment in information technology.
My fourth proposal is to invest in water sector human capital through workforce development and streamlining labor markets.
Working for Water
The U.S. water sector’s workforce challenge has been evident for a long time; as early as 2005 observers identified a slow-rolling retirement tsunami washing over utility organizations and recognized that the supply of workers was insufficient to meet the nation’s needs. In many ways, the water sector’s workforce issues mirror those of the wider public sector workforce. But addressing water workforce challenges isn’t just about quantity, it’s about quality.
Once upon a time, water system operations was a semi-skilled job. If you had a strong back, could turn a wrench, and operate a backhoe, you could probably do it. Until recently, a water operator could get by with limited reading comprehension and little to no aptitude for math or science.
That’s no longer true. Today water and sewer system operations are highly skilled jobs. Regulations and technology are ever-advancing. Modern water systems require operators who can interpret complex regulations. Operators must have a solid working understanding of physics, chemistry, and biology, and a good command of math. And they have to be able to communicate with management and engage directly with the public.
Water systems are getting smarter; water operators have to be smarter, too.
But highly-skilled operators are in short supply and human capital isn’t evenly distributed. Training up a utility operator takes a lot of time, and in rural or remote parts of the US it can be especially hard to find an adequate supply of educated workers who can be trained to operate water systems.
Human capital & utility performance
Labor availability has measurable effects on effects on water quality. A few years ago David Switzer and I analyzed the relationship between SDWA compliance and the availability of skilled workers in a labor market. We found a strong relationship between labor force education and utility performance.
We also found that larger organizations are more effective in leveraging human capital than small ones. The reason is pretty clear: if you’re a smart, ambitious person interested in a water career, a small utility is at best a stepping stone, at worst a dead-end job. There may be only a handful of employees and the only opportunity for advancement is to wait for another operator to leave—or to leave yourself. So small systems struggle to attract and retain good employees. I heard directly from one utility manager that systems sometimes deliberately choose not to invest in training because they fear that a well-trained employee will leave. It’s a kind of strategic mediocrity.
Making matters worse, each state has different training and licensing regimes for water operators. There are separate licensing systems for water and sewer. There are separate licensing programs for treatment, distribution, and collection systems. Sometimes states set up reciprocal licensing agreements, but it’s a confusing and frustrating patchwork. All those rules are sand in the gears of the labor market and discourage smart, ambitious people from entering or building careers in the water sector.
Human capital investment
We need to grow the supply of human capital, and we need to streamline the labor market. So proposal number four is to invest in workforce development, and create national certification standards for operators.
This isn’t a particularly new idea—it’s a revival of an old one. Discussions of the 1972 Clean Water Act tend to focus on the pollution controls in Titles III and IV (for obvious reasons). But importantly, the Clean Water Act included a huge federal investment in research and training. In the 1960s environmental engineering was in its infancy as a field, and when Congress passed the Clean Water Act it wasn’t exactly sure how to make the nation’s waters fishable-and-swimmable.* So Uncle Sam built human capital for the water sector as it was building physical infrastructure. It’s telling that Title I of the Clean Water Act was an investment in people, and Title II was an investment in pipes.
Folks in the water sector sometimes refer to the generation of water professionals who emerged in the 1970s and 80s as the “Class of 72,” recognizing that in many ways the field of environmental engineering came of age due to that federal investment. We need a similar investment today to build the next generation of water professionals. We need careful, data-driven research on effective utility management, leadership, and organizations. We need rigorous degree and certificate programs to funnel talent into the water sector. America’s land grant universities (like Texas A&M!) are great institutional venues for these efforts, but there are other good models out there, too.
Freeing the market
Labor markets—like most other markets—work best when buyers and sellers can exchange freely. Along with investments in research and training, we need to harmonize, liberalize, and streamline licensing regimes for water and sewer operations. Instead of a crazy patchwork of training programs and licensing requirements, let’s establish national standards and a national accreditation system for both individuals and training institutions. Organizations like ANSI and AWWA have processes in place to craft water technology standards; the same model could be applied to licensing and certification. With national training and licensing standards in effect, a smart, ambitious person could enter the water sector with the prospect of building a career that could take her anywhere.
*Political scientists call that “speculative augmentation,” which is a polite way of saying “Congress has no idea what to do, so it’s going to kick the problem to experts and hope they can figure it out.” In the case of environmental regulation, it’s worked out reasonably well.
A decoupling drama plays out in San Jose
Over the past year I’ve blogged about my research with Youlang Zhang and David Switzer on public and private water utilities’ responses to the drought that gripped California from 2014-2017. One of our most interesting findings was that California’s private, investor-owned utilities conserved significantly more water than government utilities. We argued that a main reason for the difference was politics and California law, which allows rate decoupling for private water utilities.*
The timing of the San Jose story was uncanny: I wrote my 2018 water conservation update just as SJWC was filing its request for the rate increase. The story of conservation and rates in San Jose is a useful illustration of why decoupling is so economically effective but politically perilous.
One city, three water systems
San Jose is unusual among large American cities in that three separate utilities provide drinking water service to its residents. The San Jose Municipal Water System (SJ Muni) is governed by the San Jose City Council, which sets the utility’s investment, operating, and financial policies. Two private water systems also serve San Jose: Great Oaks Water Company and San Jose Water Company (SJWC). Corporate boards and executives make investment and management decisions for these systems. Serving a population of more than a million, SJWC is the giant of the trio; but SJ Muni and Great Oaks are also large, each serve populations of around 100,000.
Importantly, very different processes govern price-setting for the three systems. San Jose’s elected City Council sets rates for SJ Muni. As investor-owned systems, SJWC and Great Oaks set their rates through the California Public Utilities Commission, whose members are appointed by the governor. That means San Jose voters can influence SJ Muni’s rates through their elected councilmembers. Rate-setting for SJWC and Great Oaks is a more technocratic affair, with the process handled mostly by lawyers, engineers, and economists at the CPUC.
All three systems charge fixed monthly service fees plus volumetric prices. However, their volumetric rate structures differ in subtle but important ways. The two private utilities employ inclining block rates, which charge progressively higher unit prices as volume increases. For example, SJWC customers pay $3.20 per hundred cubic feet (ccf) for the first three ccf; prices jump to $4.80/ccf for the next 15 ccf, and then to $6.40/ccf for volume beyond 18 ccf per month. Great Oaks uses a similar three-block rate structure, although its rates are considerably less progressive. SJ Muni uses a flat rate: customers pay the same unit price for all water, regardless of how much they use.† Here’s how these prices translate into bills for demand ranging from 0-30 ccf per month:
Great Oaks’ prices are lowest overall. SJ Muni’s and SJWC’s prices are similar at low volumes, with the private company’s total prices about $7-10 higher through the first 15 ccf. Without detailed financial, operational, and customer data, it’s impossible to say whether that gap is justified. We can say that the gap widens at higher volumes due to SJWC’s more progressive pricing: at 40 ccf/month a SJWC customer pays $52.09 more than a SJ Muni customer. That means SJWC likely gets significantly more of its revenue from the high-volume customers who pay high prices for water.
Is water consumption in San Jose consistent with those differences in pricing? This chart shows SJ Muni’s water conservation from 2015-2018, and population-weighted conservation for SJWC and Great Oaks for the same period, compared with the same month in 2013:
Notice how the green (private) line is close to but usually slightly above the blue (SJ municipal) line? Overall conservation tracks pretty closely for public vs. private over the four-year period, but San Jose’s private systems have averaged about 1% more savings.
The difference in per capita water use is much more noticeable; here’s residential gallons per capita per day in 2018:
San Jose’s private utility customers are much more conservative with water than are SJ Muni’s customers, using about eight gallons per person less water on average. The disparity is greatest during the seasonal peak period when supply stresses are also greatest.
Decoupling to the (utility’s) rescue!
In 2018, SJWC’s water customers were so conservative that the utility had a $9 million shortfall in sales revenue. California’s policy of rate decoupling allows the company to make up that shortfall with a rate increase in 2019. San Jose residents and lawmakers are angry that their reward for conservation success is a rate hike. Flat rates help keep SJ Muni’s revenues steadier and so spare the city council from the citizen wrath that such a rate increase might unleash.
Lots of things cause people to use more or less water, and so we can’t say for certain that prices drove the conservation patterns we see in San Jose without detailed customer-level data and a carefully-designed study. But it’s fair to say that San Jose’s experience is consistent with the public-private differences we see in the rest of California. Without decoupling, it’s unlikely that private utilities would use progressive pricing and risk the kinds of revenue losses that they experienced in 2018.
Economics is supposed to be the dismal science and politics the art of the possible. But for California water, the opposite seems to hold: decoupling makes conservation economically viable for private firms, while politics forces governments into difficult choices that can mean financial success at an environmental cost.
† SJ Muni’s flat water rates vary by geographic zone. The graph here uses a simple average of those rates.
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.