From Focusing event

Rapid Relief

How the federal government might end shutoffs & keep water flowing during the COVID-19 crisis

Can't do this if your water has been shut off.

The COVID-19 crisis has escalated America’s water and sewer affordability challenge into a full-blown health emergency. Many low-income households struggle to pay for these essential services in the best of times, and the specter of shutoffs for non-payment now threatens to worsen the pandemic. It’s hard to wash hands, cook at home, and maintain adequate sanitation without water service.

In response to the fast-moving crisis, scores of utilities are suspending shutoffs and restoring service for the duration of the pandemic. That is a prudent move in this emergency, but suspending shutoffs and restoring service carries significant financial risks for utilities and does not fundamentally solve the affordability problem, even in the short-run. An end to shutoffs does not mean an end to high prices, late fees, or penalties. When the crisis passes, many customers will still have outstanding balances running into the thousands of dollars and once again face the threat of shut-offs. Meanwhile, in plenty of places shutoffs continue even as COVID-19 rages.

Good news: utilities restoring service. Bad news: the bill is still due.

Federal water bill relief?

Last week Congress passed a monumental $2 trillion economic rescue package in response to the COVID-19 crisis sweeping the country. During the helter-skelter Capitol Hill negotiations over the COVID-19 bill, House members proposed $1.5 billion in water assistance relief for low-income households. Modeled after LIHEAP, the federal low-income energy assistance program, the proposal would have provided financial assistance to income-qualified households to help pay for water bills through existing LIHEAP administrative processes. The proposal didn’t make it into the bill that finally reached President Trump’s desk.

Although the water bill assistance would surely have helped many, it would likely have made little difference in the big picture. For starters, while $1.5 billion is a lot of money, means-tested assistance programs are costly to administer and burdensome for customers who need help. This sort of relief can help, but will take time to work its way through administrative processes and into consumers’ accounts to prevent shutoffs. Even at their best, means-tested programs help a small fraction of the eligible population—historically LIHEAP has reached only about 16% of those eligible for assistance. Complicating matters is the extreme fragmentation of the U.S. water sector, with 50,000 mostly small water systems operating across the country. Some of the poorest Americans live in small communities where utilities’ and social service organizations have limited capacity to administer assistance. The need for immediate relief in the face of a pandemic demands faster, farther-reaching action.

Bigger, bolder, faster action*

So what might work better? I’ve long argued that pricing, not assistance programs, is the best way to tackle water affordability. With the pandemic upon us and a massive, emergency need for universal in-home water and sanitation, it’s worth considering a similarly massive, emergency financial response. Here’s an outline of a scheme that could quickly end shutoffs and maximize short-term affordability relief with the lowest management cost to utilities and zero administrative burdens on customers.

The federal government should provide formulaic, conditional grants directly to water utilities. Grants would be awarded as a percentage of each utility’s budgeted 2020 annual rate revenue, with the percentage equal to the community’s poverty rate. For example, Seattle Public Utilities’ 2020 budget calls for $205 million in water revenue and about 12% of its population lives in poverty, so its grant would be $24.6 million. Detroit’s budgeted water rate revenue for 2019-2020 is $131 million and its poverty rate is 33%, so its grant would be $43.2 million.

In exchange for this cash injection, utilities would have to meet simple conditions on pricing and customer administration. Specifically, for the duration of the national COVID-19 pandemic, utilities would:

  • End residential shutoffs for non-payment;
  • Restore service to all occupied residences currently shut off;
  • End residential foreclosures and financial penalties for non-payment or service restoration;
  • Forgive all outstanding penalties, fees, and interest on residential water accounts;
  • Structure prices so that 6,000 gallons of monthly residential water and sewer service costs less than $58 (eight hours of labor at federal minimum wage).

All community water systems that operate on a fee-for-service basis would qualify, including municipal, tribal, special district, and investor-owned systems. Utilities could use the money to offset revenue losses due to COVID-19 crisis, fund assistance programs, or maintain and improve capital.

Federal funds would be channeled from EPA through existing state Drinking Water Revolving Funds directly into utility coffers, requiring very little additional administrative capacity. There would be no administrative burden at all on customers. Administration for very small systems could be managed through state or county governments.

Wonder Twin Powers - ACTIVATE!

With annual water utility revenue totaling something like $70 billion and a national poverty rate of 11.8%, the program would end up costing around $8.5 billion dollars. For another $10 billion we could extend the program to cover sewer revenue, too. Until last week, those would seem like absurdly large sums, but they’re rounding errors in the $2 trillion-dollar package that Congress just approved.

Emergency & aftermath

To be clear, this isn’t a carefully considered, meticulously modeled plan—it’s an idea meant to get water flowing immediately in response to an urgent need. These are big, blunt policy instruments, but the proposal outlined here could be introduced on Monday​, signed into law by Wednesday, and water service restored in communities across the country by Friday. ​In a pandemic every moment matters.

​Lasting, sustainable solutions for the water sector will require more fundamental reforms to the way that we govern, finance, and manage these critical systems. I hope that once the COVID-19 storm fades, a renewed commitment to improving the American water sector is one of its silver linings.


*Thanks to Wendi Wilkes for prompting and helping me think this through via Twitter. She deserves a share of the credit if you like this idea, but no blame if you hate it.

Golden Opportunity

What the Cuyahoga River Fire says about the past and maybe the future

Cleveland, 1969

Fifty years ago this week the Cuyahoga River caught
fire in downtown Cleveland.

Observers of U.S. water policy and environmentalism more generally have been celebrating the fire’s golden anniversary all year, because three years after the Cuyahoga River burned, Congress passed the Clean Water Act. The Safe Drinking Water Act followed two years later. The Cuyahoga River Fire is a textbook example of what political scientists call focusing events: high-profile occurrences that suddenly put previously obscure issues onto the public policy agenda.

The 1969 fire is rightly iconic today, but many forget that it was the twelfth time that the river burned. Why did the 1969 fire catch the public imagination? The truth is that nobody knows. But it did, and it changed the way Americans think about water pollution. The fire presaged a series of laws that fundamentally changed the regulation of water pollution in the United States, invested hundreds of billions in infrastructure, catalyzed new technology, and built a generation of professionals dedicated to protection of the nation’s waters.

A new focus

A year ago I called the Flint Water Crisis the Cuyahoga River Fire of our generation. Flint has changed the way that Americans everywhere think about water infrastructure. As with the 1969 Cuyahoga River Fire, Flint wasn’t the first, wasn’t the worst, and wasn’t the biggest drinking water disaster in recent U.S. history, but it’s the one that caught the public imagination.

The Flint story wasn’t just about water chemistry and failing infrastructure—it was also about bureaucratic organizations and partisan politics. And it was about poverty and race: Flint showed America that water infrastructure is an environmental justice issue. That’s expanded the political coalition focused on water infrastructure. There’s a growing consensus that existing infrastructure funding arrangements are failing.

I’ve worked on water system management, regulation, and finance for more than 20 years and have never seen this kind of public attention to the issue. As recently as two years ago I dismissed the idea of a trillion-dollar federal program for water infrastructure as politically unviable. But something has shifted. Last month Congressional leaders and the president began sketching out a $2 trillion infrastructure package—with potentially hundreds of billions for water, sewer, and stormwater systems.

Those talks have broken down, but the fact that they were even happening suggest that we may be an election away from a major federal investment in infrastructure. Whether it’s next year or two years from now, it looks like Washington may soon be raining infrastructure money. That’s music to the ears of lots of activists who cry out that an injection of federal money is needed to fix America’s water systems.

Recovery & reform

Today people paddle their kayaks on the Cleveland riverfront and safely eat the fish they catch there. If the problems weren’t too big then, they surely aren’t too big today.

River paddling in Cleveland has gained popularity with the decline in fires and toxic waste (Jim Ridge, Share the River)

To be honest, I was a little relieved when negotiations between the White House and Congress faltered last month, because the breakdown gives us a chance to pause, take a deep breath, and think systemically. Today, the principal barriers to progress in the water sector are not environmental or technological—they are political, social, and economic. Accordingly, a big federal funding package can and should be used as leverage to reform the institutions that govern water in the United States.

Recently I was asked to speak about water infrastructure at the University of Rhode Island’s Metcalf Institute. With the Cuyahoga River Fire’s golden anniversary on my mind, I proposed five broad reforms to the U.S. water sector that ought to accompany any big federal program. They are:

  1. Consolidation / Regionalization
  2. Regulatory Equality & Transparency
  3. Technological Investment
  4. Human Capital
  5. Water Equity

Later this week I’ll start a series of posts elaborating on these to help get a deeper conversation going. Since this is a blog, I’m going to breeze by a great deal of detail and keep things at a 30,000-foot level. But each proposal is rooted in empirical research, each part is ambitious, but also technically and politically feasible. Over the next 2-3 years we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rebuild and reform water governance. Let’s make the most of it.

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.