From Environmental Justice

Clean water regulation in Indian Country

Sovereignty isn’t what’s on paper, it’s what flows through taps and rivers

Environmental sovereignty (Photo: nativenewsonline.net)

America is slowly awakening to the dire state of tribal water and sewer systems. Access to drinking water and sanitation services are severely limited on many reservations, and where such systems exist, many are in poor shape. A couple years ago ​the first systematic study of Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) and Clean Water Act (CWA) ​implementation for tribal facilities yielded alarming results: tribal systems violated the SDWA 57% more and the CWA 23% more than similar non-tribal facilities. The disparities extended to enforcement, too: formal SDWA enforcement was 12% lower and CWA inspections 44% less frequent for tribal facilities. Evidence of systemic environmental injustice is seldom so glaring.

But there is hope. A new study offers promising evidence for a way to tackle the daunting challenge of tribal water systems. This time instead of comparing tribal and non-tribal systems, ​Mellie Haider and I looked at differences across tribal facilities to see whether regulatory institutions might hold the key to better environmental management in Indian Country. To understand why, we have to start with the foundations of federal environmental regulation and the peculiar legal status of Indian nations.

Environmental federalism & tribal governance

The landmark laws of the 1970s that form the core of American environmental protection (e.g., the Clean Air Act, Resource Conservation & Recovery Act, SDWA, CWA) were built with a system of federal-state cooperative implementation. Under these laws, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets rules, and states are responsible for implementation and enforcement of those rules for the facilities operating in their jurisdictions.

Thing is, tribes are sovereign nations under the U.S. Constitution, and so they—and, by extension, their water/sewer systems—are not subject to state laws. Oddly, the major environmental laws of the 1970s ​made no explicit provision for regulation of tribal facilities. As a result, tribal water and sewer systems operated in a regulatory vacuum well into the 1980s.

Introducing tribal primacy

Beginning in the Reagan Administration, a series of amendments and executive orders extended federal environmental laws to tribal lands and gave EPA direct implementation authority over them. Some tribal officials successfully lobbied Congress to treat tribes as states for regulatory purposes. With these new rules, tribes may apply to take primary implementation responsibility, or “primacy,” under federal environmental laws. Tribes applying for primacy authority must demonstrate to EPA that they have the administrative capacity to handle regulatory enforcement.

More scenes like this one, please.

​What difference would implementation primacy make to tribal environmental regulation?

On one hand, tribes might engage in a “race to the bottom,” loosening or neglecting environmental rules in order to avoid regulatory costs and improve ​economic output. But a race‐to‐the‐bottom logic makes little sense for American Indian tribes with respect to environmental regulation. Already occupying the proverbial “bottom,” tribes have little reason to shirk regulatory compliance in a race there.

On the other hand, tribal primacy might lead to more rigorous enforcement, as tribes seek to improve health while maintaining their traditions and cultur​es. Federal regulators have few political incentives for devoting scarce resources to enforcement on tribal land, especially when tribes may lack the political strength to demand strict enforcement. At the same time, many tribal governments serve sparsely populated communities under poor economic conditions, leaving tribes with limited access to the human and financial capital necessary to maintain compliance. Regulatory neglect might be the unfortunate (though understandable) result. Tribes with primacy have more control over their own environmental fates. Moreover, primacy can give tribes an important lever in their environmental conflicts with neighboring firms and jurisdictions.*

What difference does primacy make?

To understand the impact of​ implementation primacy on tribal ​clean water enforcement, we analyzed CWA ​records for ​474 tribal wastewater treatment plants in the United States from 2016-2019. About 15% of these facilities operate under tribal regulatory primacy; the rest are regulated directly by the EPA.** After adjusting for facility size, we found that facilities operated by tribes with primacy were inspected more than twice as often as those regulated by the EPA.†

The enforcement gap between tribal and EPA enforcement ​is greatest for smaller facilities and declines as facility size grows. Over our three-year period of analysis, a very small facility (design capacity 5,000 gallons per day) received an average of 2.75 more inspections under tribal primacy than under EPA oversight. At a moderately large facility (2.5 million GPD), the difference fell to just 0.24, statistically indistinguishable from zero.

The fact that the biggest differences are in the smallest systems underscores the impact of tribal primacy as an administrative phenomenon: it stands to reason that EPA officials spend their limited resources on larger tribal facilities. But in the water sector, the greatest environmental​ injustices are often in the smallest, most isolated communities. ​Our evidence shows that tribal primacy has its greatest impact in those small, isolated communities that are otherwise easily neglected.

More of these people, please.

Effective sovereignty

Implementation authority over environmental regulation gives tribal governments effective sovereignty. Sovereignty turns from mere legal assertion to real, practical impact when tribal officials have greater control over their own destinies. Along with money for pipes and plants, efforts to improve tribal water systems must build human capital and organizational capacity to operate and regulate those facilities. Recognizing this reality, the EPA and the Indian Health Service, along with Indian organizations like Native American Water Association and Intertribal Council of Arizona, run programs aimed at building tribal capacity. In the long run, empowering and building ​tribal governance capacity offers perhaps the most promising avenue for improving the environment in Indian Country.



*In fact, we found that tribes with a history of frequent federal litigation were more likely to seek primacy. A history of litigation indicates tribal independence, nationalism, and other political factors related to assertions of sovereignty.

**At the time of our study, only one tribe (the Navajo Nation) held SDWA primacy, so we couldn’t analyze variation in drinking water regulation.

†Our analysis also adjusted for differences in the characteristics of tribes with and without primacy.

Defense Against the Dark Arts

During a public health crisis, getting the research right is paramount

Beware the confundus charm

​It started with a tweet.

A new peer-reviewed Utilities Policy article on water utility ownership, low-income households, and shutoffs? From a pair of professors at major research universities? This was right up my alley!

The paper’s title—Does public ownership of utilities matter for local government water policies?—is intriguing. Water system ownership, regulatory policy, and especially shutoffs are enormously important and notoriously difficult to analyze due to data difficulties. The tweet and top highlight finding were provocative: “Cities and towns with government-owned utilities shutoff customer drinking water less.” These are headline-grabbing claims, sure to draw the attention of water sector leaders and policymakers looking for ways to tackle an ongoing public health crisis. I dove into the paper immediately, excited about what I might find!

Unfortunately, the study is deeply flawed. Few readers—even within the academy—have the appetite to get into the methodological details necessary to understand what the data really show. My deep dive revealed that the article’s authors came to profoundly incorrect conclusions. Last week I emailed them with my concerns. This post is my attempt to clarify what the article obfuscates and to set the record straight.

The claims

From tweet to title to text, Homsy & Warner’s article promises to explore the role that “local government utility ownership play[s] in meeting equity and environmental goals.” The study’s literature review frames its goals as an inquiry on “Publicly owned versus privately owned water supply” (section 2.3), with interest in public/private differences in “equity” (2.1) and “environment: water resource management” (2.2). Specifically, they’re interested in whether publicly owned water systems ​provide more protections against shutoffs for low-income households and greater water conservation. ​The implied comparison is with private water utilities.

The empirical analysis uses a 2015 ICMA survey sent to municipal chief administrative officers. The sample included all municipalities, towns, and counties with populations over 25,000 and a sample of smaller communities of populations between 2,500 and 25,000. The survey yielded 1,897 responses for a 22% response rate.* Respondents were asked whether their governments own water utilities. If the respondent said yes, the community was coded as having a “publicly owned utility” or “Government-owned utility”; if the respondent said no, then it was coded as having a “not publicly owned utility.”

When "Government-owned" does not necessarily mean owned by a government. 

The survey also asked questions about policy, including whether the city or county had taken action to "protect low-income households from water service shutoff.” The answer to this question is Homsy & Warner’s only measure of shutoff protection. They don't actually ​count shutoffs. About 8% responded that their governments provided shutoff protections.

These survey data were analyzed with a series of logistic regressions to predict the likelihood that a community has water shutoff protections as a function of public ownership and a series of other variables. Ownership emerges as a very strong predictor, leading Homsy & Warner to declare that: “if a utility is government-owned, the municipality is about two times more likely to have water shutoff protection policies.”

They conclude that “ownership matters, as communities with publicly owned utilities appear more inclined to protect residents from water service shutoffs.” That would be a big, important finding—if ​the data supported it. The trouble is that the data don’t show anything of the sort.

Where it all goes wrong: misleading measurement

The first hint that something was amiss was that just 55% of Homsey & Warner’s sample were publicly owned utilities, with the authors implying that the other 45% were served by private utilities. That struck me as extremely low, since about 85% of Americans get their drinking water from a local government, with about 15% served by private, investor-owned firms. How could the ICMA sample be so grossly skewed in favor of non-government utilities?**

​The answer is in the way that Homsy & Warner code “public ownership.” Recall that the ICMA survey was sent only to counties and municipalities and that respondents who reported that their governments own water systems were coded as “publicly owned.” What’s missing is special districts.

​​Special districts are local governments with narrow functions and limited powers; there are tens of thousands of such districts across the U.S.. The city and county officials responding to this survey who get their water from special districts would answer "no," and then Homsy & Warner would code the community's water system as "Not Publicly Owned."

Water districts, Potter. Remember the water districts.

Consider, for example, Central Arkansas Water. Headquartered in Little Rock, Central Arkansas Water serves a population of more than 450,000, including the cities of Little Rock, North Little Rock, Alexander, Sherwood, and Wrightsville, along with parts of unincorporated Pulaski County. Survey respondents from Pulaski County and all five of these cities would report that their governments did not own a water system. ​Homsy & Warner would code their water systems as "not publicly owned," even though a government--Central Arkansas Water--supplies their water.

​Around 30% of the local government water systems in the United States are owned and operated by special districts. These special districts are definitely local governments.​ Without accounting for special district utilities, we cannot infer anything about public/private water system ownership from these data.

Sins of inference

But it gets worse. The study’s first highlighted claim is that “cities and towns with government-owned utilities shutoff customer drinking water less.” Thing is, this study doesn’t measure shutoffs. It measures whether a municipal or county government has a policy to protect low-income households from shutoffs. Reliable shutoff data are notoriously hard to find, which is why serious research on the subject is rare. A reader who doesn’t get into the empirical weeds wouldn’t notice that data don’t support this claim.

Apart from problems with coding ownership and counting shutoffs is the question of what this all means for water governance. What should we infer from the fact that a municipality that owns a water system is more likely to have water shutoff protections than a municipality that does not own a water system? Homsy & Warner conclude that “communities with publicly owned utilities appear more inclined to protect residents from water service shutoffs.” That’s a bit like finding that people who own cars are more likely to have jumper cables than people who don’t own cars. ​Would we then infer that car owners care more about their families' transportation than transit riders?

Why it matters

Policymakers, advocates, regulators, and utility managers are looking for answers to a historically tough challenge in the COVID-19 pandemic. Researchers everywhere are working hard to find ways to help protect public health. ​

We certainly need to understand water shutoffs and how to prevent them. But the stakes are too high for policy researchers to play fast and loose with data and inferences. This isn’t an abstract, theoretical squabble over the literary interpretation of Hamlet. Real policies to protect real people in a moment of real crisis are on the line, and our communities need valid findings. The urgency of pandemic only heightens the need for ​rigorous, responsible policy research.



*It does not appear that Homsy & Warner adjusted their estimates to account for sample stratification or non-response bias.

**With just a 22% response rate, some of the issue is probably nonresponse bias. But it’s unlikely that nonresponse accounts for a 30% gap in share of publicly owned utilities.

In this sentence and throughout the article, Homsy & Warner are vague about what publicly owned utilities are being compared with.

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.