Confluence. [kän-flü-ən(t)s]. n. A coming or flowing together, meeting, or gathering at one point.
More evidence that, in a politically divided nation, water unites
Last month I argued that water ought to be the centerpiece of the Biden Administration’s environmental policy. President-elect Biden has announced climate change as the main pillar of its policy agenda, but the nation is deeply divided on climate, and so lasting progress will be difficult or impossible on greenhouse gasses. Meanwhile, protecting water is one of very few significant areas of public policy where the country is united, not polarized. That gives the president-elect and congressional leaders from both parties an opportunity to build a coalition for significant legislation on water. The idea seems to have struck a chord with many folks*, and it's picked up some momentum. More and more voices joining the call to rally to water policy when the new Administration and 117th Congress take office.
Encouraged by the response to my last post, I went casting about for more recent data on broad public support for water policy (my Texas A&M data were gathered in 2015). Happily, the 2020 Value of Water survey (VOW) by the U.S. Water Alliance asked about both climate and water. The national poll let respondents express their attitudes on a four point scale from “extremely important/concerned” to “not too important/concerned.”
The results are remarkably consistent with my earlier findings:
N=454. Thin bars represent 95% confidence intervals.
Once again, there’s a familiar stark gap between Democrats and Republicans on climate, but virtually no difference on questions about drinking water and water pollution.** And again, respondents who identify as strong Republicans express very little concern for climate change, but very strong concern for both drinking water and water pollution.
City water, country water
More than twenty years of experience and gigabytes of data have also convinced me that water also can unite urban and rural interests for leaders who want to build political bridges. And what do you know? The VOW survey also gathered data on where respondents live:
N=499. Thin bars represent 95% confidence intervals.
Once again, we see a significant divide between urban and rural folks on climate, but virtual unanimity on water.*** Strident (and likely futile) efforts by the Biden Administration to push climate initiatives in Congress would only deepen the divide between rural and urban America. But initiatives to deliver safer drinking water and fight water pollution could bring together urban and rural interests.
Art of the possible
Meaningful, enduring public policies require building coalitions across diverse segments of the American public. If the incoming White House and congressional leaders are serious about solving problems, they’ll do well to work on water.† People across the political spectrum want safe, great-tasting tap water, and fishable/swimmable rivers, lakes, and oceans. The impact of good water policy is immediate and tangible. Landmark legislative wins are on the table for politicians with the vision and courage to pursue them.
But more than that, progress on water would help heal the nation’s political wounds, and demonstrate to a wary public that the institutions of the Republic can still fulfill the promise of a better life.
*I had a nice conversation on KJZZ in Phoenix on this topic.
**These relative partisan gaps remain in regression models that control for age, gender, race, and ethnicity.
***These relative urban/rural differences remain after controlling for party identification age, gender, race, and ethnicity.
†And remember: an awful lot of good water policy is also good climate policy. If you care about the planet more than you care about branding, talk less about CO2 and more about H2O.
Why water should be the Biden Administration’s top environmental priority
The Biden administration’s environmental policy priorities are likely to be quite different from the Trump administration’s, and the impending change at the White House has visions of sweeping new federal greenhouse gas policies dancing in environmentalists’ heads. But sober political observers know that the prospects of significant climate policy—let alone a Green New Deal—are virtually zero so long as Republicans maintain a majority in the Senate.* A trillion-dollar infrastructure and/or bailout package for local water infrastructure are also probably non-starters. Those are going to be bitter pills for many of the President-Elect’s supporters to swallow. It’s also why the Biden administration should make water, not climate, the centerpiece of its environmental agenda when it takes office in January.
Everybody cares about water
Once upon a time, environmental protection wasn’t an especially partisan issue. Indeed, most major milestones in U.S. environmental policy were signed into law by Republican Presidents.** But over the past 40 years environmental policy has become increasingly partisan at the national level, with Democrats widely perceived as more protective and Republicans less protective of environmental quality. Perhaps the most divisive environmental issue of all is climate change. When global warming entered the national political consciousness in the early 1990s there wasn’t much difference between partisans on the issue. A generation’s worth of general party polarization has changed all that, however, and today Democrats and Republicans are deeply divided even over the basic facts about climate policy. Today climate policy is nearly as divisive as abortion or guns in our national politics. Environmental activists clammor loudest for a big federal greenhouse gas program, but it is difficult to imagine any major legislation branded as a “climate” bill clearing the Senate’s 60 vote hurdle with so many red states lined up against it.
Water is different. It seems that radical polarization hasn’t yet contaminated our most essential resource. Unlike climate threats, where risks seem distant and causal linkages uncertain, risks to water quality are immediate, the causes known, and the effects tangible. It’s no coincidence that the partisan divide on water is much narrower than it is on climate. A few years ago, I helped the Texas A&M Institute for Science, Technology, and Public Policy run a national public opinion survey on environmental issues. We asked respondents to rate their level of concern about issues on a 0-10 point scale, with 10 meaning “extremely concerned” and zero meaning “not at all concerned.” As you’d expect, we found consistent partisan gaps across issues. But one really striking finding stood out to me and has stuck with me ever since. Check this out:
The public opinion gap between Democratic and Republican concern is greatest for climate change and smallest for water quality.† What’s more, the average Republican falls on the “not concerned” end of the spectrum on climate change (4.3), but well into the “concerned” range on water (6.4). On reflection, that result shouldn’t be surprising: Republicans like to drink water and flush their toilets just as much as Democrats do, and I’d guess that a good number of America’s hunters and sportfishermen tend to vote with the GOP.What’s more, the nation’s most severe drinking water, water pollution, and infrastructure affordability problems are in rural America. Big cities like Flint, Detroit and Newark tend to get the most attention from reporters and politicians, but the water challenges of rural communities are in many cases much more daunting.
Joe, Kamala, and the 117th
These political conditions are ripe for a bipartisan, urban-rural coalition to improve the nation’s drinking water and water quality. Rather than beating their heads against the stone wall of a GOP Senate in vain pursuit of climate policy, the Biden Administration ought to focus its legislative efforts on systemic reforms to improve the water sector. Vice President-elect Harris has been working on water issues actively since joining the Senate, so she’ll come into office with some expertise on the issue and is poised to be an effective champion. Major legislative victories in the 117th Congress won’t come easy for anyone, but water policy offers perhaps the best chance to get something big done on the environment.
And guess what? It turns out that lots of the things we do to protect water quality (e.g., aquifer protection, watershed management, wetland restoration, sustainable agriculture, etc.) also reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate climate change impacts. So a big victory on water policy would be a big victory for climate policy, too.***
*It’s technically possible for Democrats to pull even in the Senate with a sweep of Georgia’s special Senate elections. New Vice President Harris would then break the leadership tie and give Democrats control of the 117th Senate. My political science spidey sense tells me this is an unlikely scenario.
**Lincoln created the first national park when he signed the Yosemite Grant Act in 1864. Theodore Roosevelt established the U.S. Forest Service, signed five more national parks into law and established 19 national monuments. Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency and signed the Clean Air Act. Ford signed the Safe Drinking Water Act and RCRA, and Bush41 championed the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments that created the first cap-and-trade system for managing air pollution.
† These partisan gaps remain in regression models that control for age, gender, race, ethnicity, and income.
***Just don’t say that part out loud in red states.
About that water affordability study
in The Guardian...
The Guardian recently published a big story on water utility affordability in the United States. The headline was shocking: “Millions of Americans Can't Afford Water, as Bills Rise 80% in a Decade,” and “Analysis of U.S. cities shows emergency on affordability of running water amid COVID-19 pandemic.” The story was based on a study that The Guardian commissioned from Boston-area attorney Roger Colton. Colton’s report—which The Guardian called “the first nationwide research of its kind”* —was the basis for the story’s claims.
The Colton report sets out to do three things:
1) “examine whether the affordability of water is common in the U.S. today”;
2) examine whether “water affordability has changed in recent years;” and
3) “examine the extent to which… reasonable projections of water rate increases will affect water affordability in the near future.”
Put simply, the report aims to measure the level of water affordability in the U.S., past affordability trends, and projected future affordability.
Unfortunately, the Colton report is deeply flawed. Not just flawed in some narrow, technical sense; it’s flawed in ways that grossly misrepresent the state of water affordability in the U.S. and point to the wrong approaches to addressing the issue.
I really didn’t want to write this post. It’s heartening when mainstream journalists pay attention to the oft-neglect water sector, especially on matters of affordability, so I hate to be negative about it. I'm also painfully aware of Brandolini’s Law, and any time spent counteracting bad research is time not spent on my own research.
But over the past month I’ve fielded several inquiries about The Guardian article asking whether the Colton report is valid. The short answer is no.
The long answer requires wading into the tall methodological grass. So grab your weed eater and follow me.
Although The Guardian article’s claims are national in scope, the underlying analysis is limited to twelve cities. The dozen were not selected at random, nor are they the twelve largest. Rather, they were selected by Guardian staff, supposedly “to provide a diversity of geographic regions… population sizes… and poverty.” All inferences from the Colton report come from this hand-picked, non-representative sample of systems that collectively serve a little more than 2% of the U.S. population.
But the Colton study’s deepest problems are about measurement, not sampling. Answering the questions that the study raises requires four things:
a) prices for water service in the United States
b) household resources available to pay for water
c) projected future prices and resources
d) defining affordability
You can think of those as the numerator, the denominator, the forecast, and the judgment. All of them flawed in ways that compound and confound.
A study of water and sewer affordability should start with the price of water and sewer service, right? Strangely, the Colton study didn’t collect any rates data or calculate prices. Instead, Colton got price data from Circle of Blue’s annual reports on water prices in 30 U.S. cities. Circle of Blue calculates prices at three benchmark volumes, representing demand for a family of four at 50 gallons per capita per day (gpcd), 100 gpcd, and 150 gpcd. That works out to roughly 6,000, 12,000, and 18,000 gallons per month. Nationally, residential indoor water demand averages around 50-60 gpcd and has been falling steadily for the past twenty years. This indoor demand represents basic needs for drinking, cooking, cleaning, and sanitation. That’s the main public policy concern for affordability—from a public health standpoint we don’t really care about the affordability of lawn watering or car washing.
But the Colton report used Circle of Blue’s 12,000 gallon monthly price as the basis for its numerator. So The Guardian’s startling graphs reflect the prices for for very high volumes of water.
Next Colton used the 12,000 gallon monthly price to “derive estimated bills given average household sizes for each Census Tract,” according to a footnote on page 6. How Colton derived the prices is a complete mystery; he never explains the procedure, and the footnote is the only mention of how he calculated prices.† A simple table of monthly prices is strangely absent from the 88-page report.
Claims about the affordability of anything implies some relationship between costs and resources. Colton’s sole measure of resource affordability is the Federal Poverty Level (FPL). The FPL’s quirky origin story is fascinating—it’s based on 1962 food costs—and the problems with FPL are well-documented in voluminous research. Despite its quirks and flaws, FPL remains a touchstone in policy discussions nonetheless, mainly because it’s familiar and easily available from the US Census Bureau.
The main problem with FPL for purposes of assessing water and sewer affordability is that it’s insensitive to local costs of living. FPLS also a one-size-fits-all number national number (hence, “federal”): whether you live in pricey San Francisco or cheap Buffalo, the denominator is the same. Home energy, health care, taxes, and especially housing varies wildly across the country, but FPL is insensitive to those costs. Efforts like United Way’s ALICE are aimed at providing a more realistic assessment of cost of living by accounting for that variation.
Colton’s study projected affordability through 2030, which involved forecasting both numerators (price) and denominators (FPL). Once again, the report is vague about how it made those projections. A footnote on p.33 indicates that Colton used inflation rates from a 2017 U.S. Department of Energy’s report, which calculated 2008-2016 increases in water/sewer prices for selected U.S. cities based on average volumetric rate. It’s not clear whether Colton used city-specific projections for his twelve cities, or a 4.71% annual inflation rate, which a footnote in a DOE study says was the “national average annual price increase for water and sewerage maintenance” from 1996-2016. It’s impossible to know exactly how Colton projected prices because price projections never appear in the report. To project the denominator, Colton uses 2010-2018 increase in FPL and assumes that the same growth will continue through 2030.
It appears likely that Colton used straightline projection to forecast an already-inflated numerator using with either an eight- or twenty-year retrospective rate of change (it’s not clear which), either nationally or regionally (again not clear). He projected the FPL denominator using a different eight years of national FPL escalation.
All of this culminates in a declarations of how many people or what percentage of the population suffers from “unaffordable” water. Those conclusions fuel The Guardian headlines, but require a binary definition of what is affordable. So how did the Colton report define affordability?
“In assessing whether a water bill was ‘affordable,’ the base level of affordability was set at 4% of income,” says the report (p.8). That 4% threshold is the main definition of affordability in both the Colton report and The Guardian stories. The Colton report goes on to set “Affordable Burdens” for various income ranges.
Where did these affordability burden thresholds come from?
Colton made them up.
No poll, no Blue-Ribbon Committee, no philosophical inquiry on the meaning of affordability, no analysis of economic tradeoffs. They’re just arbitrary numbers. Every claim about the nation’s water affordability crisis and most of the scary graphs in The Guardian articles boil down to these thresholds. They’re based on nothing.
Does any of this matter? Shouldn’t we just be happy that mainstream publications like The Guardian and Consumer Reports are paying attention to water affordability? Who cares if the methodological details are a bit dodgy, if the overall point—that water prices are rising faster than poor folks’ incomes—is generally fair?
There are at least three big reasons we should care about assessments that are so egregiously inaccurate. First, this study grossly misstates the scope and nature of the problem. It’s good to draw attention, but bad measurement can lead to the wrong inferences about what’s wrong and how to fix it.
The Colton report’s treatment of Austin, Texas is a great example of what’s so pernicious about poor measurement. The Guardian screams that water bills in the Texas capital increased 154% from 2010-2018, and will be unaffordable for 26% of all Austin residents by 2030. The naïve reader could be forgiven for thinking that Austin Water executives are mustache-twirling villains trying to squeeze money out of poor folks. But remember that Colton’s calculations are based 100 gpcd of demand—far higher than basic indoor needs. Austin Water employs a progressive rate structure that’s actually designed to protect affordability for basic needs and curb inefficiently high water use--and the big price increases start at 11,000 gallons monthly. Here’s the Circle of Blue plot of Austin’s water rates from 2010-2018:
At the more reasonable 50 gpcd, Austin’s monthly water prices increased an average of $2.28 annually from 2010-2018—still an increase, to be sure, but not quite the rolling disaster The Guardian describes. Meanwhile, Colton’s 100 gpcd assumption makes Philadelphia’s regressive, declining block rates look relatively affordable, even as the City of Brotherly Love sticks low-volume customers with higher prices than Austin's. Austin’s progressive pricing is exactly the kind of thing that we ought to encourage to help affordability! Bad measurement leads to bad inferences about rate design.
Second, the arbitrary affordability thresholds that create sensational headlines preempt public debate over what affordability really means. Understanding the burdens and economic tradeoffs that low-income households face is critical to tackling the affordability challenge. But what exactly constitutes affordable water ought to be a matter of community values, not an analyst’s arbitrary judgment.
Finally, the (literally) incredible claims in The Guardian undermine legitimate efforts to assess and address the water affordability challenge. Studies that emphasize impact over accuracy risk achieving neither. Over time, slipshod studies can cause officials and the public to become cynical and dismiss an issue as overblown and ideological (see, for example, political discourse on COVID-19 prevention or climate change).
Water affordability is too important to allow to suffer that fate. Important issues demand responsible research.
*Apparently The Guardian missed this study (2015), this study (2017), this study (2018), this study (2019), and this study (2020). Each was peer-reviewed, nationwide in scope, and included far more utilities than the Colton report.
†I’m guessing that Colton did something like multiply 12,000 gallon price to the ratio of average census tract household size and Circle of Blue’s assumed 4-person household. But that’s pure speculation.