Grow to Shrink, Shrink to Grow

​Better Together

Water Sector Reform #1: Consolidation

With a major federal investment in water infrastructure possibly on the horizon, the United States has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to leverage that money into reforms to transform America’s water sector. This is the first in a series of posts outlining five broad proposed reforms.

The first is consolidation and regionalization of water utilities. This is the single most important, badly-needed reform. Without this reform, any major federal investment will be a temporary fix, and the rest of my proposed reforms probably won’t work without it. To understand why, start with a simple observation:

There are WAY too many water systems

One of the things that really surprises newcomers to the American water sector is just how many water systems there are. The energy sector provides a useful comparison. In the United States today there are about 3,200 electrical utilities and about 1,400 gas utilities. There are about 50,000 community water systems.

These systems are highly skewed in size. It turns out that 40,000 of those 50,000 are very small, serving populations fewer than 3,300. These small systems serve less than 10% of the population, but they are 80% of the total systems. A little more than half of the US population gets its water from the largest thousand utilities.

It’s difficult to overstate the effects of this extreme fragmentation. Virtually every aspect of America’s water sector is worse because there are so many tiny systems that lack the capacity to operate effectively.

Small systems, big problems

America’s water problems aren’t only in small systems, but there’s no question that small water systems are disproportionately plagued by poor water quality. Here’s the relationship between system size and violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act’s heath standards:

As you can see, violations are strongly related to system size. In small systems it’s not uncommon for utilities to have multiple violations, year in and year out. This graph is from my own analysis w/David Switzer, but study after study after study after study after study finds this same relationship. Here’s the same plot for sewer treatment plants and NPDES permit noncompliance the Clean Water Act, from a study I did with Mellie Haider and David Switzer:

High prices, too

Adding insult to injury, water is also more expensive in small systems. Small systems pay more for capital, they have fewer customers to share the fixed costs, and they’re more vulnerable to revenue fluctuations, which limits their flexibility in rate design. Here’s the relationship between the price of basic monthly water and sewer service for a family of four (about 6,000 gallons a month) measured in hours of labor at minimum wage.*

Water and sewer services are most expensive in small systems, and get cheaper as systems grow. So with both quality and price, there’s strong evidence that there are huge economies of scale to the water sector. These economies of scale are well-understood.

Regulatory economies of scale

But there’s another, less obvious and more pernicious problem with all these small systems: all that fragmentation creates practical problems for regulators. Every one of those 50,000 systems has to be managed, monitored, and regulated by the EPA, ​in conjunction with more than a hundred state, territorial, and tribal bureaucracies. 50,000 systems means 50,000 sites to visit, 50,000 files to keep current, and 50,000 records to report. State regulatory offices don’t have the information systems—let alone the legions of workers—to handle all that work.

A well-kept secret of the water sector is that small systems are held to much lower standards than larger systems. It’s not just that enforcement is lax with small systems; the agencies that regulate water actually have different enforcement guidelines for small systems, with less stringent standards.

The good intention that paved the way to this particular hell is the recognition that small systems often lack the organizational capacity to comply with the rules. Water regulations are unfunded mandates. Rather than continuously slamming small systems for their violations, regulators move the goalposts, or simply look the other way when violations occur. So the correlation we see between size and SDWA and CWA violations actually grossly understates the real relationship between scale and water quality. Intentionally lax enforcement consigns people served by small systems—often poorer, rural populations—to heightened health risks and poor environmental quality.

Shrink by Growing

These problems are widely recognized. Sure, there are some excellent small systems, and small system operators often achieve remarkable things with limited resources. But the data are clear, and the stakes are high. The ​common sense solution is to reduce the number of systems through consolidation: shrink the number of systems by growing utility organizations. 

Consolidation can happen when multiple systems merge, a bigger utility takes over a smaller one, or when an investor-owned firm buys up small systems. The right consolidation approach will vary from one place to another; we ought to be agnostic with respect to the institutional form. Physically integrated utility systems are best where possible, but small systems can be folded into larger organizations even when they’re physically separate. That is, multiple small systems can be operated by a single organization. Several government and investor-owned utilities already operate under this model.

Recognizing the perils of fragmentation and the promise of consolidation, some state governments, including California and Connecticut, have taken steps to encourage consolidation.

But it’s hard. Consolidation efforts often face fierce political resistance, either from communities who fear losing control or from staff who fear losing jobs. Sometimes it’s difficult to find larger utilities willing to take on the responsibility for a small, failing systems. Consolidation is controversial in the water sector; in certain circles “consolidation” is a dirty word. I’ve heard privately from multiple regulatory officials that they desperately want consolidation, but are afraid even to utter the word “consolidation” in public. Sometimes it’s just hard to navigate the legal and financial complexities of consolidation. Consolidation has been agonizingly slow in Connecticut; four years after passing a law to promote small system consolidation in California, little has happened.

Tastier carrots, bigger sticks

Shrinking the number of systems is the single best thing we can do to improve water infrastructure in America. So my first proposal is to reduce the number of water utilities by an order of magnitude—to something like 5,000-10,000 utilities—by 2030. As is often the case in public life, moral appeal and clear empirical evidence have been insufficient to overcome the political barriers to consolidation. That’s where federal leverage can make a difference.

Federal funding for local water, sewer, and stormwater systems must be contingent on consolidation. Let’s spend money to fix failing systems, but only if the fixes put them on a path to self-sufficiency. Low-interest loan programs probably aren’t sufficient to induce consolidation; hundreds of billions in federal grants would be a whole lot more appealing. For small systems, federal grants must be awarded only with consolidation. For larger systems, federal grants should be awarded only to utilities that agree to takeover nearby or adjacent smaller systems. Consolidation can be technically, legally, and financially complicated, so federal funding should also provide technical assistance to support the process.

A key corollary to that federal largess is a leveling of the regulatory playing field. There must be one rule book: all water and sewer systems must be held to the same standards. No more loosening the rules for small systems because they lack the organizational capacity to comply with environmental regulations. If systems lack the capacity to comply with the rules, then regulators should be empowered to force consolidation for systems that fail perennially.

Next time I’ll turn to the second major proposal: a change in regulatory transparency aimed at changing the local politics of water infrastructure.

*You can see a bunch more analysis of affordability here.

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