From July, 2020

Looking Back and Moving Forward

Sometimes ​a move is about the pull, not the push

Next month I’ll be leaving Texas A&M University ​and starting an appointment ​with the La Follette School of Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin.

​Spirit of Aggieland

Joining the Texas A&M political science department in 2013 was an inflection point for me, professionally and personally. In research, as in so many other walks of life, peer effects are huge: being surrounded by greatness forces you to raise your own game. That’s certainly been the case for me at A&M. Over the past seven years I’ve worked alongside extraordinarily smart, productive, and supportive colleagues. At Texas A&M I’ve also had the chance to teach and learn from some wonderful students. I got to teach introductory State & Local Government to thousands of Aggies and led graduate seminars with dozens of PhD students. I’ve had the privilege of advising David Switzer and Youlang Zhang to their PhDs (with Samantha Zuhlke coming soon!). I’ve learned so much from all of them. I am grateful.

​I expected to join a great department before I came to College Station; I did not anticipate how much I’d love Texas and Texas A&M. Texan culture is vibrant and diverse—at once eclectic and traditional. There’s an industry and palpable optimism about the people of Texas that matches the expansive skies, prairies, and bayous. I’ve never felt more at home culturally.

Gonna miss you, Aggieland

And the Aggies! The traditions, core values, and most of all the commitment to service woven into the fabric of this institution are inspiring. In classrooms, at football games, and especially at Silver Taps, Aggies are wonderful human beings. I will miss them.

​My time at Texas A&M coincided with a national awakening to the importance of water infrastructure policy. Having worked for decades on the technocratic topics of water regulation, management and finance, the sudden attention has been a bit bewildering—but also exhilarating and affirming. Texas A&M gave me the resources and platform to conduct crucial, path-breaking research on regulatory policy, affordability, and environmental justice. This work is having real-world impact. It feels more and more like we’re ​poised to make generational changes to the way that we manage and govern water in America.

​The Wisconsin Idea

…which brings us to Wisconsin. In Madison I’ll join a La Follette School faculty dedicated to evidence-based public policymaking in the service of society. Steps from the Wisconsin statehouse and steeped in Wisconsin’s progressive tradition, public engagement and applied policy research are at the core of the school’s mission. I’m also joining UW at an inflection point for La Follette: I will be the eleventh(!) new professor to join the school’s (already amazing) faculty this year. The school just launched an undergraduate program. It’s a time of possibility and growth.

Hello, Badgerland!

​The move to Madison is particularly portentous for my work on water governance. Utility regulation was born at UW more than a century ago; Wisconsin’s PSC is America’s original utility regulatory commission. Today Wisconsin’s data and regulatory frameworks continue to offer promising models for improvements to water regulation everywhere, as I’ve written before.

​But perhaps most of all, I’m inspired by the Wisconsin Idea: that great universities exist in service to the public, and that education should better people’s lives beyond the classroom. I got chills when I first read about the Wisconsin Idea—it was like a mission statement for my ​professional life.

​Northward bound

I’ll miss old friends, bluebonnets, brisket, tacos, and the Fightin’ Texas Aggies, but I’m looking forward to tall pines, Great Lakes, and a return to Big Ten country.* I could not be more grateful for where I’ve been, or more excited about where I’m going.

Thanks and Gig ‘em​.

And On, Wisconsin!

*I’m a long-time, hardcore Michigan fan. It’s going to take a while to get used to rooting for the Badgers.

Graphic Realism

Organization of U.S. drinking water utilities in a few simple figures

Here are some graphs that convey ​a few key things about the organization of drinking water utilities in the United States​.*

​Source: EPA SDWIS

​There's a lot of important information ​in those graphs, but these are the most important for policymaking purposes:

  1. Fragmentation. There are nearly 50,000 community water systems in the United States, an order of magnitude more than electrical and gas utilities combined.
  2. Ownership & governance. The overwhelming majority of Americans (84%) get their drinking water service from local government utilities, rather than investor-owned utilities. This proportion is opposite from the energy sector, where investor-owned firms ​hold the lion's share of the market.
  3. Size. The distribution of systems is highly skewed in size: over half of American community water systems are very small, serving populations of less than 500​; the largest 434 systems serve nearly half of the U.S. population.

These three realities inform virtually every aspect of water system management, operations, finance, and regulation. Any successful effort to improve or reform American drinking water utilities must account for the political and administrative challenges that these realities present.

Organizations are human creations, so we can change them if we want to. But we can’t ignore them.

*Feel free to copy and use; please link to this ​page. 

Clean water regulation in Indian Country

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

Environmental sovereignty (Photo:

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.