During California’s recent drought, the utilities that own their supply sources conserved more than the those that purchase water from wholesale suppliers
-Warning: this post contains hardcore wonkery-
A while ago I blogged about my ongoing work with Youlang Zhang and David Switzer on water conservation in California. The first of our studies is now published at Policy Studies Journal; more are on the way. There we saw that financial incentives and institutional politics led to the surprising result that private, for-profit companies out-conserved local government utilities during a recent drought.
But another interesting pattern emerged from that study: a significant difference in conservation between utilities that draw their water supplies from wholesale sources.
Where utilities get their water
The drinking water utilities that serve American communities get their water in one of three ways*:
1) Pumping groundwater from wells that tap underground aquifers;
2) Drawing surface water from lakes and rivers; or
3) Purchasing water from a wholesale water utility.
In the first two cases, local utilities own wells, surface water intakes, and treatment plants. About 29% of American utilities fall in the third category, getting their water through wholesalers. In these cases, the local utility owns a distribution and/or storage system, but the supply works and perhaps the treatment facilities belong to another utility. Sometimes these wholesale utilities have retail customers of their own, sometimes they are purely wholesale suppliers.
In California, more than a third (36%) of water systems get at least part of their water from a wholesale supplier. A handful of very large wholesale water suppliers like Metropolitan Water District, San Diego County Water Authority, and Santa Clara Valley Water District manage major supply works, and then sell water to cities, special districts, and investor-owned retail water utilities.
Spreading the risk
A major advantage of big wholesale water utilities is that they allow a region’s water supply to be managed holistically and comprehensively. Rather than individual communities competing and depleting water supplies, regional wholesalers can plan and balance water supply needs. From the local perspective, wholesale utilities help diversify supply and so guard against catastrophic supply shortages. They also allow communities across a region to pool their capital for greater efficiency. Together these features spread both supply risk and financial risk across many local utilities.
Sales agreements between retails and wholesalers vary widely across the country, so generalizing is difficult. But one common feature of wholesale contracts is the take-or-pay provision. Under take-or-pay arrangements, the wholesaler agrees to supply and the retailer agrees to purchase a fixed volume of water over a given period of time for a given price. If retail demand exceeds the contract volume, the retailer pays for more on a volumetric basis. If retailer demand falls short of the contracted volume, the take-or-pay provision requires the retailer to pay the wholesaler anyway, as if it had used the entire contract volume.†
In other words, under take-or-pay contracts, the retailer pays the wholesaler the same amount, even if the retailer uses far less water than the contracted volume.
Wholesale supply & the logic of conservation
Got all that? Still with me?
Here’s what it all means for conservation. Wholesale supply arrangements reduce supply risk and long-term financial risk to local utilities. Take-or-pay contracts make a lot of sense for long-term stability for supply systems that have high fixed costs.
But in the short-term, these wholesale arrangements create disincentives for retail conservation during a drought. Under wholesale agreements, short-term supply risk from drought is shifted from the local utility to the wholesaler: the wholesaler is legally responsible for maintaining adequate supply. Meanwhile, fixed take-or-pay contracts leave retailers on the hook for the same amount no matter how much water their customers actually buy. The retailer may suffer significant sales declines if it rains all summer, or if the state imposes drought restrictions, but the retailer still has to pay the wholesaler as if demand was normal.
Together, these factors create structural disincentives for emergency conservation for retail utilities under wholesale agreements.
Does diluting risk also dilute conservation? As I explained in an earlier post, the recent drought in California prompted that state to impose conservation rules on retail water utilities from June 2015-May 2016. Each utility was assigned a specific conservation target and the state recorded overall conservation by each utility.
Did utilities that operate under wholesale supply arrangements perform differently from utilities that own their own supplies?
Our analysis of data from the drought mandate period is pretty striking. After accounting for a host of organizational and environmental conditions, we found that water systems that rely on wholesale water supplies were 42% less likely to meet state conservation standards, compared with systems that own their own supplies.
We also found that, after accounting for other factors, utilities under wholesale contracts conserved an average of 2.6% less each month relative to systems that use their own wells or surface water sources. In a state as large as California, this small percentage difference equates to tens of billions of gallons.
Follow the money
These patterns don’t prove that wholesale contracts caused California utilities to slack on conservation. But the data certainly align with the short-term incentives that wholesale supply arrangements create, and there aren’t other obvious reasons for the disparity. The lesson here is to pay close attention to wholesale contracts when setting conservation rules, so that conservation and financial incentives work in concert.
*Technically there are other sources, too—desalination and water reuse, for example–but they’re so rare that they don’t allow for much meaningful analysis.
†”Take-or-pay” is a weird phrase, since there’s really no “or” to the arrangement. Seems like “fixed fee” is a more accurate label, but then I’m not a lawyer.
Another way in which it’s tough to be poor
Drinking water utilities are great, but they aren’t perfect. Sometimes there are problems. Do those problems occur randomly? Or are there observable patterns in the water service problems?
Recently I’ve been posting about some findings from a Texas A&M Institute for Science, Technology & Public Policy (ISTPP) national public opinion survey. The survey’s carefully-designed sample of nearly 2,000 individuals is representative of the US population, and so offers an extraordinary look at public perceptions about water service. Earlier posts reported on attitudinal differences between water professionals and the general public, and on the ways that gender predicts opinion on water issues. I’m continuing to write up interesting findings from the ISTPP survey as time allows.
Today I’m looking at income.
Water service problems
The ISTPP survey asked respondents to say whether they had experienced each of the following problems with their drinking water with a simple yes/no answer:
- The water does not taste good (31.5% yes)
- The water is cloudy or dirty (19.5%)
- Water pressure is low (29.2%)
- The water causes sickness (3.8%)
- Water billing or payment problems (10.2%)
Importantly, this survey captures perceived water service problems, not actual problems—we don’t know that any given respondent actually experienced low water pressure, for example. We only know whether a respondent thinks (s)he experienced a problem. Likewise, we don’t know whether water actually caused sickness, only whether the respondent believes that it did. Fortunately, the large majority of respondents said “no” to all of these.
But the “yes” responses didn’t happen by chance. I fitted logistic regression models to identify correlates of water service experiences using the demographic variables in the ISTPP survey, such as race, ethnicity, age, urban/rural location, region, and income. These models estimate the likelihood of experiencing each of the five service problems.
A troubling pattern
The demographic correlates of water service problems vary, but across all five items, household income was the single strongest and most consistent predictor of water service problems. The graph below shows the likelihood of reporting that water billing problems at various income levels, with all else held equal (vertical spikes represent 95% confidence intervals):
At a $20,000 household income, there is a 13% chance of reporting billing problems. At $50,000, the likelihood is to about 9%; at $100,000 the likelihood drops to about 8%. That all makes some sense; we’d generally expect billing problems to correlate with income.
But the same pattern emerges for other kinds of water service problems, too. Here is the likelihood of reporting that water tastes bad at various income levels, again with other variables held constant:
At a $20,000 household income, there is a 37% chance of reporting bad-tasting tap water. At $50,000, the likelihood is to about 30%; at $100,000 the likelihood drops to about 25%.
Here’s the likelihood of experiencing cloudy or dirty water by household income:
Here’s the likelihood of reporting low water pressure by income:
And finally, here’s the likelihood of reporting that water caused illness by income:
Taken together, this is a sobering picture.* There is a clear relationship between income and the way that Americans experience their drinking water utility service. These results resonate with recent research finding a positive relationship between tap water consumption and income, with attendant implications for public health.
*In a future post I’ll look at race and drinking water experience; the picture won’t be much prettier.
Sometimes progress is visible in what you don’t see
Earlier this week I had the pleasure of speaking to the annual conference of the California Water Association, an organization of that state’s investor-owned water utility companies. The theme of the day was affordability. The California Public Utilities Commission and State Water Resources Control Board are working hard to craft rules and guidelines for affordability in the Golden State, with clear implications for the state’s utilities.
During the conference several speakers took to the stage to talk about efforts underway in California to ensure affordability as communities grapple with water infrastructure and supply costs. We heard from utility managers, state agency bureaucrats, and state legislators. These were not dilettantes or casual observers; these were experienced people well-versed in water policy, and I heard lots of exciting things about steps and directions the state and its utilities are taking.
But one of the most exciting things about the conference was something I didn’t hear and didn’t see. In an all-day meeting on the subject of water affordability, nobody mentioned average-bill-as-percent-of-median-household-income.
Indeed, I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I was the first to mention the %MHI standard when I launched into my familiar attack on that miserable metric. I’ve been excoriating that metric in rooms full of water folks since 2006.
I can do it in my sleep. But the attack wasn’t necessary in that room on that day. The audience was receptive to more careful measurement and analysis—even if the results weren’t pretty or comfortable.
Good policy requires good measurement. In the case of water affordability, good measurement begins with abandoning bad measurement. The California water community has apparently taken that first step; maybe it’s a sign that the rest of the nation is ready to follow. The quiet disappearance of a number from conversation might seem like the smallest of small victories, but policy revolutions begin with such changes in analytical frameworks.