Why water access & affordability need higher priority
Effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are felt hardest in economically stressed communities, which makes addressing water equity more urgent now than ever. As anchor institutions in their communities, water utilities have the ability and responsibility to advance water equity. In collaboration with community organizations and local stakeholders, water utilities can build a foundation for thriving, equitable systems and communities — even during a crisis. They can do this by focusing on the three pillars of water equity: ensure access and affordability for all, maximize community and economic benefits, and foster community resilience.
Ensure access and affordability for all. In the water sector, economic hardships lead to increased rates of service disconnections, late fees or tax liens. These actions compromise the ability to maintain health and safety and potentially increase the risk of families losing custody of their children or their homes. Water utilities should work to permanently end water shutoffs and late fees for low-income households and instead strive for a model of universal water service access and affordability.
Utilities are unlikely to get funds from customers who truly cannot afford to pay. Harming those customers will not increase revenue. Instead, utilities should focus on affordable rates and solutions for all customers. When people can afford rates, they are more likely to pay bills and contribute to healthy revenue streams. To that end, utilities can implement affordability programs with equitable rate structures, payment assistance and in-home water conservation assistance.
Utilities can offset financial impacts associated with ending shutoffs for low income customers by reducing non-revenue water and increasing operational efficiency. They can also restructure debt and seek lower interest financing through state revolving fund programs and the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA). Taking actions like these increases the sustainability of the revenue stream, which has a positive impact on utility finances and even its bond rating.
The burden should not entirely rest on utilities to meet the affordability challenge. It is long past time for the federal government to implement a program similar to the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (commonly known as LIHEAP) for water customers.
Maximize community benefits. The Brookings Institute recently reported that 40 to 50% of the nation’s water workforce is eligible for retirement in the next three to five years. Water utilities across the country must hire many new workers in the coming years and decades. Meanwhile, water and wastewater treatment plants are often located in economically distressed areas where unemployment is high. Utilities and communities can reduce obstacles to employment by partnering with workforce development organizations to tailor training and apprenticeship programs to youth in underserved communities.
Fostering community resilience. Often, low-income communities are disproportionately affected by flooding due to increased rainfall. Installing green infrastructure in these communities reduces combined sewage flooding and overflows and provides green amenities for neighborhoods. Through community partnerships, utilities can design projects that are valued in the neighborhoods where they are located, and residents can be engaged in long-term maintenance. In this way, utilities can reduce capital infrastructure costs and provide green space and green jobs for the communities they serve.
Acting in an equitable way means charging rates that are fair and affordable, running treatment operations that are odor-free and neighborhood-friendly, replacing aging infrastructure in distressed communities and implementing hiring practices that represent the communities that water utilities serve. Not only is water equity the right thing to do, it is also the wise thing to do. These actions can enhance quality of life and economic development and significantly reduce liability from lawsuits, regulatory fines and poor public relations.
Utilities must work in collaboration with frontline community organizations whose input helps utilities understand the pressures vulnerable communities face. As communities begin to think about what a long-term recovery from COVID-19 will look like, it is essential for water utilities to do their utmost to make water equity a priority in all their actions, policies, programs and plans.