Water Sector Reform #2:
Regulatory Transparency & Fairness
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 transformational, institutional solutions for America’s water sector. This is the second in a series of five posts outlining five broad ideas to reform the management, governance, and regulation of U.S. drinking water, sewer, and stormwater systems. The first proposed reform was consolidation of water utilities.
The second proposed reform is an overhaul of the processes and institutions that regulate water system finance using regulatory models from New Jersey and Wisconsin. The goal of this reform is not to regulate water quality directly, but rather to change the incentives for the organizations that operate water systems.
The need for regulatory reforms follow from the ownership structure of the U.S. water sector.
Another important way in which water is different from energy and other utilities is ownership. The overwhelming majority of Americans get their electricity and/or gas from a private, investor-owned firm, with small minorities receiving service from government utilities. But water is a different story: about 88% of Americans get their drinking water service from a local government, with about 12% served by private firms.
Ownership is crucial because different institutions govern private and public systems, creating different incentives for infrastructure investment.
Public Utilities Commissions
Let’s start with the private sector. The profit motive, constrained by regulation, drives management of investor-owned utilities.
Private utilities of all kinds—water, energy, telecom, whatever—are operated by corporate managers in the interests of their shareholders. But utilities are natural monopolies, and so we can’t count on free markets to guide investment and pricing. Instead, prices are not set by the companies themselves, but rather by the state Public Utilities Commissions (PUCs). The PUCs require utilities to report publicly their asset management plans and financial records in order to justify their pricing. PUC-regulated systems must also report a variety of performance data, which commissioners scrutinize to ensure that utilities are maintaining adequate service.
PUCs allow private utilities to set prices based on the amount of capital they invest in the system: the more capital invested, the more revenue they earn. That can create an incentive for private utilities to over-invest in infrastructure because those investments allow them to raise rates—a problem known as the Averch-Johnson Effect. Much of what the PUCs do is scrutinize all those investments to ensure that they’re justified and that utilities aren’t gold-plating their systems. In other words, PUCs act to prevent over-investment in utility capital.
But remember, that’s only about 12% of the water sector.
The overwhelming majority of water service is provided by local governments—usually cities, counties, towns, villages, authorities, and special districts. These systems are managed by local bureaucrats, with investment and pricing decisions made by local elected officials. For all the talk about federal funding, U.S. water infrastructure investment is mainly a function of local politics.
Local politics are unkind to water infrastructure because the price of water is much more visible than the quality of water. As in all things, people generally like high quality and low prices. Thing is, most contaminants in water are invisible. Unless my water is so bad that I can smell or taste it, unless there are frequent an ongoing outages and main breaks, I really have no idea how good my water system is. Unlike roads and bridges, water systems are literally buried.
But the price of water is easily observable. Voters may not know what contaminants are in the water, but they know for sure what they pay for it when they get the bill each month.
Now suppose I’m an elected official who wants to please my voters. If I make decisions that maintain or improve water quality, that’s good! Alas, my voters may not recognize the improvement. But quality improvement might cause prices to increase, which is bad because higher prices are immediately visible to voters.
But blame avoidance isn’t good for infrastructure investment. That’s a big part of why all those facilities built back in the 1970s and 80s are crumbling today. Back when the CWA and SDWA sent hundreds of billions of dollars to local governments, the idea was never for the US government to own and operate water systems. The goal was for Uncle Sam to help get those systems up and running in compliance with the new environmental laws. Local governments were then supposed to take over responsibility for those systems. In too many cases political forces have led local officials to run those systems to failure. Local politicians don’t neglect water infrastructure because they’re stupid; they do it because they’re responsive to voters.
Jersey to the Rescue?
In 2017 New Jersey passed the Water Quality Accountability Act (WQAA), which requires all water utilities—both government and investor-owned—to develop asset management plans, report on infrastructure conditions, and reinvest adequately in their systems. Rule-making to implement the new law is still under way, but what the WQAA requires of all water systems is similar to what PUCs already require of investor-owned utilities: transparency about infrastructure conditions, evidence that they are managing assets responsibly, and evidence of system performance.
Making all that system information transparent can make water’s quality as visible at its price. We can make water infrastructure a credit-claiming opportunity for local officials, not just a blame-avoidance game. Mayors seeking reelection should point at their cities’ water system performance with pride, not merely seek to duck responsibility for rate increases.
Meanwhile, in Madison…
A thousand miles away, Wisconsin employs a unique regulatory system that’s a perfect complement to New Jersey’s new law. All fifty states and the District of Columbia have Public Utilities Commissions, but Wisconsin is the only state where all systems—public and private—are subject to PUC financial regulation. That is, Wisconsin local governments must get approval of their rates from the PUC (or the Public Services Commission, as they call it there).
As with other utilities commissions, the traditional role of the Wisconsin PSC with respect to rates is to guard against over-pricing by private monopolies. But in the case of local government utilities, the PSC’s authority could include New Jersey-style asset management requirements and a guard against underpricing due to inadequate reinvestment. At the same time, the PSC provides something of a shield for local leaders. As a 2012 Alliance for Water Efficiency report observed:
“The Wisconsin Public Service Commission regulates both public and private water systems, and assumes the responsibility for approving all changes to water rate-making in the state. Thus, the political ‘heat’ is off at the local level and water systems can more easily approach the PSC for needed changes to their revenue structures.”
In theory, if a utility isn’t adequately investing in maintenance and upgrades, the Wisconsin PSC might actually be able to compel rate increases. (I’m not sure that’s ever actually happened).
Together, the Garden State’s new WQAA and the Badger State’s PSC authority over local governments would be a potent regulatory combination. So my second proposed reform is to require comprehensive asset management and performance reporting for all water utilities (as in New Jersey), and to extend PUC pricing regulation to government utilities (as in Wisconsin). The idea is broadly consistent with Australia’s model for urban water price regulation. As with my other proposed reforms, achieving such a significant overhaul to the nation’s regulatory institutions will require federal leverage.
The great promise of the regulatory regimes pioneered in New Jersey and Wisconsin is that transparency and fairness can make buried infrastructure more visible, and so shift the political incentives for sound management of water systems.