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.
No, EPA did not propose affordability guidelines for municipal utilities
Late last week the EPA published in the Federal Register some proposed new guidelines for evaluating sewer utilities’ financial strength. In press releases and public comments, water sector and local government organizations lauded the proposal as an important action on “affordability,” and a few news outlets dutifully reported on the EPA’s new water "affordability" guidance. Likely most people would think that means lower water bills for low-income households.
But the EPA’s proposed guidelines have little to do with affordability as most of us think about that word—the guidelines are not about ensuring that low-income Americans can pay for water. Rather, the proposal is about whether communities have sufficient resources to pay for water pollution controls required under federal law. In practical terms, the new guidelines are about whether sewer utilities have to comply with the Clean Water Act in a timely manner.
Understanding what’s going on here requires understanding a bit about sewers, the Clean Water Act, and why utility managers think about “affordability” differently from the rest of us.
Clean Water Act and local economics
Municipal sewer systems must meet a variety of pollution control rules under the federal Clean Water Act. Many of these rules require major investments in infrastructure and ongoing operational and maintenance costs. Often these costs can be quite high, especially in older communities that operate combined sewers that suffer significant sewage overflows during rainstorms. Overflows can cause raw sewage to run into rivers, lakes, and coastal waters, with attendant damage to health and environmental quality. The Clean Water Act aims to reduce, mitigate, and eventually eliminate such pollution. Recognizing that pollution controls are expensive, Congress built into the law provisions that a allow sewer utility to delay compliance with water pollution controls if compliance would outstrip its “economic capability.”
With few exceptions, sanitary sewer utilities in the U.S. are owned and operated by local governments. In practice, then, when sewer systems face significant Clean Water Act compliance costs, local officials sometimes try to negotiate delayed compliance with EPA or state environmental regulators by arguing that their communities have insufficient economic resources to comply with the law.
To evaluate these claims, EPA conducts a Financial Capability Assessment (FCA)—an appraisal of water pollution control costs relative to a community’s overall economic resources. This appraisal is supposed to be holistic, capturing a range of economic indicators. Since 1997, a key element of EPA’s assessment methodology has been the residential indicator, which is intended to reflect the impact of sewer system costs on rate payers. The residential indicator is the average sewer bill as a percentage of the community’s median household income (%MHI). When that value exceeds 2.0%, EPA considers pollution control costs to be “high” and potentially eligible for delayed compliance.
This approach isn’t great, but it’s not a crazy way to evaluate community-level financial capability.* Still, the residential indicator has been much-maligned in the water sector and was the subject of a comprehensive critique from the National Academy of Public Administration three years ago. Last year AWWA, WEF, and NACWA joined forces to advance a new analytical framework to guide FCA instead of %MHI. The AWWA/WEF/NACWA methodology incorporated local poverty levels and sought to evaluate Clean Water Act compliance costs in terms of their potential impacts on household sewer bills at the 20th percentile income.
What EPA is proposing
Still with me? Great. The proposal that EPA released last week is a revision to the FCA guidelines with two broad alternatives. Much of the proposal aligns wiht the methodology favored by AWWA/WEF/NACWA. Under the Alternative 1, EPA retains the traditional %MHI residential indicator and the suite of economic indicators in its existing methodology, but would add assessments of local poverty prevalence and potential rate impacts on 20th percentile income households. Alternative 2 would allow utilities to use a “dynamic financial and rate model” to evaluate the impacts of Clean Water Act compliance costs on customers.** At the heart of the new proposal are a pair of tables that integrate the old and new methodologies:
Recognizing the underlying distribution of economic conditions by accounting for poverty and 20th percentile incomes is an important advancement. Under either alternative, these guidelines are marked improvements on the status quo in that they provide a more complete, nuanced economic picture of the communities that sewer utilities serve.
Still, it’s important to keep the purpose of all this analysis in mind: under either alternative, the FCA would inform EPA’s negotiations with sewer utilities over compliance schedules. The point of these guidelines is to determine whether and how much sewer utilities ought to delay compliance with the Clean Water Act. Compared with current practices, the proposed guidelines are more flexible and could in some instances lead to more permissive regulation.
Financial Capability ≠ Affordability
EPA did not propose guidelines on affordability for low-income water or sewer customers. Under the proposal, EPA could consider low-income customer assistance programs (CAPs) as part of its overall assessment, but nothing in the proposed guidelines requires or even encourages CAPs. The proposed guidelines would not oblige utilities to structure rates in ways that constrain prices for conservative or low-income customers. Indeed, a utility that was looking for ways to delay investments would actually have an incentive to set more regressive prices: high fixed charges and declining block rates would make FCA metrics look worse, and so help justify compliance control delays.
So despite the rhetoric in headlines and press releases, these guidelines really aren’t about affordability in the way that most of us understand the term. Sure, delayed Clean Water Act compliance will reduce a sewer utility’s revenue needs. But EPA doesn’t regulate rates under the Clean Water Act, and so there’s no guarantee that financial savings from Clean Water Act noncompliance will accrue to low-income customers. In short, these guidelines are not about low-income affordability, they’re about utility finances and water pollution.
Don’t blame EPA for this confusion—they’ve been scrupulously clear and consistent that their guidelines are about financial capability. Regrettably, the industry press releases and news stories have been waving an affordability banner where it doesn’t quite belong.
Can communities afford clean water?
All this confusion over terminology invites reflection on what affordability really means. When municipal sewer utility leaders declare that they can’t “afford” to comply with the Clean Water Act, they’re making a political judgment that spending on other things or keeping taxes and service rates low is preferable to following water pollution rules. That is the prerogative of local policymakers. Communities need to pay for many important things, and clean water is just one of them. The democratic process is meant to help us sort out our collective priorities.
That’s why there’s more at stake here than pedantry. In expanding the meaning of “financial capability” to recognize the distribution of incomes in communities, these guidelines invite us to think about the distribution of environmental conditions in the same communities. The proposed guidelines don’t contemplate whether foregoing water pollution control in the name of “affordability” really helps or hurts low-income households. Do working class folks benefit when a city has low utility bills, but faces frequent and ongoing sewer overflows? Who suffers when raw sewage flows into rivers, lakes, and harbors because utilities can’t “afford” Clean Water Act compliance?
Using the right words compels us to confront these uncomfortable questions, and focuses our attention to what FCA guidelines mean where the sewage meets the street.
*%MHI is, however, terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad way to measure low-income household affordability.
**This alternative is going make rate consultants happy.