March 21, 2019
2019 Annual Global Water Alliance Conference
Solving US and Global Water Inequities: Sharing Solutions from Around the World
On March 21, 2019, national and international experts offered solutions to one of the world’s most pressing global health threats: supplying clean drinking water and safe sanitation to residents of developing countries and across the USA. Over 140 professionals, students, and other stakeholders gathered for the 12th annual conference of the Global Water Alliance (GWA) around the theme of finding solutions to inequities in the water sector.
Read more on the GWA website
June 15, 2018
Making Ends Meet: A National Dialogue on Water Affordability
Making Ends Meet: A Workshop on Water Affordability was held on May 30th at the University of Pennsylvania. Presentations from the workshop can be found below.
The workshop brings community and utility leaders from around the nation together to discuss and find solutions for the growing water affordability crisis.
The event was supported by The Water Center at Penn, American Rivers, the Mayors Innovation Project and Clean Water for All.
Please read more about our conference on the Water Center Blog.
Thanks for Joining Us!
Community leaders, local elected officials, and advocates from around the country joined us in Philadelphia for an important two days discussing the depths of the water affordability crisis and learning about the solutions for tackling it in our communities.
Click Below to view speaker presentations:
Introductory Session: The Philadelphia Story
The introductory session of “Making Ends Meet: A Workshop on Water Affordability” was held on Wednesday evening, May 30th at the University of Pennsylvania’s Kleinman Center for Energy Policy. The full day workshop takes place on Thursday, May 31st. It is supported by The Water Center at Penn, American Rivers, the Mayors Innovation Project and Clean Water for All. The workshop brings community and utility leaders from around the nation together to discuss and find solutions for the growing water affordability crisis.
The introductory session told “The Philadelphia Story” of how too many low-income Philadelphia families were struggling to pay their water bills and how in response, Philadelphia water and community leaders came together to create an innovative income based tariff system to ensure affordable water for all Philadelphians. Led by Howard Neukrug, Executive Director of The Water Center at Penn, a panel including Debra McCarty, Commissioner of the Philadelphia Water Department, Rob Ballinger, Community Legal Services and Sonny Popowsky, former Consumer Advocate of Pennsylvania, described how Philadelphia created the ground breaking income based water tariff system known as the Tiered Assistance Program (TAP).
TAP came about due to significant input from multiple stakeholders, all of whom recognized the critical need to address the mounting water debt of low-income households. Bringing stakeholders together on a regular basis allowed participants to understand each other’s perspectives and find a solution that worked for all parties. Having dedicated public advocates to represent water customers was also essential. According to Debra McCarty, “the process matters as much as the final outcome.”
On several occasions, credit was given to Philadelphia Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez whose district had a heavy concentration of households below the poverty line that were also in water debt. Councilwoman Sanchez took the initiative to sponsor the legislation that ultimately led to the TAP program, showing how the efforts of one person can catalyze others to make significant and necessary changes. Now through TAP, Rob Ballinger noted, “We have a powerful tool to achieve water affordability.” Sonny Popowsky added that Philadelphia is fortunate to have water leaders who are willing to take progressive positions on environmental and consumer issues. Philadelphia’s TAP program can now serve as a model for other utilities in terms of the program’s structure and well as how it was developed.
Former Philadelphia Mayor, Michael Nutter, closed the evening by reminding the audience that water is one of the most essential resources on the planet and that it is our collective responsibility to ensure that all households are able to afford water. He appealed to the audience to stay active, stay engaged and stay involved because “this work is not only for ourselves, but more importantly, for our children.”
Former Philadelphia Mayor, Michael Nutter with Water Center Director, Howard Neukrug
While the water crisis in Detroit, Michigan isn’t at the top of the mainstream news cycle anymore, the crisis continues to rage for many in the Detroit community. The first session of the Water Affordability Conference, titled “The Water Affordability Crisis”, demonstrated just how raw emotions still are in Detroit. Howard Neukrug, Executive Director of The Water Center at Penn kicked off what turned out to be a very powerful morning session by reminding the audience that, “There is so much more work that the water utility industry needs to do, along with communities, scientists, academicians and everyone else, to get us to the point where our utilities and cities are highly resilient and sustainable for the future. We are not there.” One of the essential steps to getting there, and the goal of the conference, is to come together to better understand what is needed to solve one of the most urgent US water problems, water affordability.
The discussion panel was moderated by Jessica Loya, National Policy Director for Green Latinos, and included Mustafa Ali, Senior VP of Climate, Environmental Justice and Community Revitalization at the Hip Hop Caucus, Professor Emily Kutil, Founding Member of We The People of Detroit and Jerome Shabazz, Executive Director of the Overbrook Environmental Education Center in Philadelphia.
Mustafa Ali began the panel discussion with a startling statistic. Fourteen million families in the US are unable to pay for water. This inability to pay for water is not just an economic issue. Lack of affordable water degrades communities because of its cascading impacts that create a negative downward spiral that is difficult to stop. Emily Kutil provided an illustration of this spiral from Detroit where lack of affordable water creates water shut off, resulting in less hygienic living conditions and a 155% increase in skin, soft tissue and gastrointestinal infections which leads to more emergency room visits versus the general population.
Members of the conference audience from Detroit provided emotional descriptions of how in Detroit, unpaid water bills are attached as tax leans to homes and can cause already struggling households to lose their homes to foreclosure. In addition, to get clean water for basic living needs, residents must pay for expensive bottled water, which puts the household under further financial hardship and stress. Co-Founder of We The People Of Detroit, Cecily McClellan put it simply, “We can live without many things. But we can’t live without water.”
Jerome Shabazz discussed how water is often viewed by city and or utility officials from a financial perspective, when in reality, water is a human centric issue that is closely tied to human dignity. He described water as a linchpin of communities and stressed the need for all stakeholders including utilities, local government, academia and community representatives to have open and frequent discussions that form the basis of public policy. Mustafa Ali called for greater civic participation and “authentic collaborative partnerships” where communities inform and influence the process of setting policy at the state and local levels. The panel was in agreement that communities need to be educated about the complexity of water affordability issues and elected officials must be held accountable. Emily Kutil noted that when it comes to water, “ infrastructure is political as well as physical.”
This powerful session, through both panel and audience member participation, helped everyone in attendance better understand water affordability issues on the intellectual level, but perhaps more importantly, feel the devastating impacts of the water affordability crisis on a much deeper, emotional level.
Creating Stormwater Fees
Stormwater fees are increasingly being used to address runoff. Moderator Gary Belan of American Rivers led a panel including Adam Ortiz, Director for the Department of the Environment, Prince George’s County, Maryland, Rick Gray, Former Mayor of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Alicia Smith, from The Junction Coalition in Toledo, Ohio, Darryl Haddock, Environmental Education Director of the Western Atlanta Watershed Alliance and Andy Kricun, Executive Director and Chief Engineer at Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority (CCMUA) to discuss what these leaders are doing to keep stormwater fees fair and affordable in their communities.
Central to every panelist’s strategy was engaging the community. As Alicia Smith stated, “It’s about how you do the work and who you do the work with.” But there are a lot of steps to community engagement. One of the first is listening. Adam Ortiz described the challenges he faced while trying to meet the EPA’s Clean Water mandate by replacing impervious with pervious surfaces. He described his first attempt at working with churches (due to their large impervious asphalt parking lots) as a failure and explained that some of his initial assumptions about the churches turned out to be wrong. Thanks to persistence and determination, he and church representatives eventually “learned how to hear each other”, understood the other side’s story and built trust. “It’s not over after one meeting or even 20 meetings”, Adam said. But it was worth the effort as more and more churches came on board with the necessary.
Another critical step toward community engagement is education. An important lesson for water professionals is that education goes both ways. Water professionals need to educate communities about water solutions like green infrastructure but they also need to beeducated about the issues within the community. Alicia Smith emphasized the importance of sharing information between citizens and between generations of citizens. An example of this is how, in an underprivileged community in Toledo, green leaders were established for each city block and young people were mentored by the elderly in order to provide both inspiration and aspiration toward a better quality of life.
Water professionals need the best data to help solve problems. Often, the community has the best, most accurate data. Andy Kricun described how CCMUA went directly to Camden residents to ask where the flooding from combined sewer overflows (CSOs) was occurring in order to address the issue as quickly as possible. In Atlanta, when data wasn’t available from outside sources, Darryl Haddock and the Western Atlanta Watershed Alliance asked residents to help collect data. This kind of collaboration not only met the need for information, but also created a voice for community members.
Panelists agreed that high visibility and awareness of efforts to address stormwater is important when it comes to gaining acceptance of stormwater fees. Camden and Atlanta both recommended starting with small projects such as rain barrels and gardens, then building to larger projects over time. Rick Gray explained how early green infrastructure projects in Lancaster helped build acceptance of stormwater fees long before the fees were actually imposed. In Lancaster, each time a new park or green community project was completed, signs saying, “Green infrastructure at work” were posted in the area to ensure residents understood how green infrastructure helped improve the community. After completion of six projects and four or five years of seeing the infrastructure signs, the community not only associated green infrastructure with a better quality of life, they asked for more green infrastructure in a park known as “Peace Park” and raised the money for the park themselves. When the time finally came to impose stormwater fees, the goodwill built around green infrastructure eliminated any community opposition to the fees. In fact, the only opposition at the final hearing to approve the fees was two attorneys for commercial interests with very large parking lots.
Transparency and accountability are also important. In Prince George’s County Rick Oritz described how performance metrics and a map showing the location of projects and the progress toward each project’s goals is updated every night so the community can actually see where their dollars are going and the impact of those dollars. In Toledo, Alicia Smith stressed the importance of quantifying results in ways the community can understand and appreciate. Information regarding the dollars saved through green infrastructure projects is shared as well as more tangible and perhaps more meaningful benefits such as the fact that 13 blocks were saved from flooding, four demolished homes were replaced by green space and 1300 families were helped by providing funding to pay for plumbing repairs.
There was consensus among the panelists that stormwater fee acceptance requires engagement of a wide group of stakeholders instead of a top down approach. Lancaster’s multi-stakeholder panel unanimously endorsed a tiered stormwater fee schedule based on the amount of impervious surface per property while the Prince George’s County turned the “rain tax” required to meet the EPA Clean Water mandate into an opportunity to address community needs, use projects to attract and engage innovative private companies, generate jobs, build business mentorship programs and incorporate educational experiences into every project. Green infrastructure not only attracted private partners to help grow the local economy, green infrastructure projects were supported by non-profit community partners such as schools, churches and community organizations.
While community engagement, education, visibility, transparency, and a multi-stakeholder approach are necessary to address stormwater fees, creativity may be the underlying factor in all stormwater fee successes stories. Camden city is one of the most financially distressed communities in the United States, so the CCMUA took a unique approach to stormwater fees for its Camden city residents. CCMUA is a regional utility servicing 36 mostly affluent suburban communities, as well as Camden city. CCMUA’s wastewater treatment plant is located in Camden city while many of the 36 suburban communities are miles away. CCMUA uses variable water rates, with local residents receiving a 40% discount on the rationale that those residents shouldn’t have to shoulder the same water conveyance costs as their suburban neighbors. As Andy Kricun put it, “Your zip code should not determine the kind of services and quality of life you need.” And in Toledo, Alicia Smith and her team knew that all the new green infrastructure would require maintenance, so they asked for additional an 15% in funding from the EPA to pay young people to maintain the projects and turn maintenance into an educational experience. In addition, adults in the community pulled together, with each person contributing five dollars to pay young people to maintain the new green spaces. These types of solutions aren’t typical. They are creative, but most importantly, they get the job done.
Even though the panel recognized that the local level can’t solve stormwater fee issue alone and that there is a significant need for more federal funding, with the creative, holistic and long term thinking demonstrated by the panelists, solutions are clearly possible. Alicia Smith said it well, “Its all about how you connect the dots. It’s one thing to sit and to talk about it. It’s something different to make solutions. There are solutions even in the midst of crisis.”
Utilities and cities are under increasing pressure to address water affordability. This inspiring session, moderated by Matthew Braunginn of the Mayors Innovation Project, showcased ways some utilities and cities are developing customer assistance programs and finding fair rate based solutions. Panel members included Stacey Isaac Berahzer of the University of North Carolina Environmental Finance Center, Roger Colton of Fisher, Sheehan & Colton, Mohamed Balla of the Atlanta Department of Watershed Management and Debra McCarty, Commissioner of the Philadelphia Water Department.
Stacey Isaac Berahzer started the session by discussing key steps in designing a Customer Assistance Program (CAP). Key steps include deciding on eligibility criteria, what types of assistance should be provided, program outreach and monitoring and program funding. One of Berahzer’s recommendations regarding eligibility criteria was not to reinvent the wheel. Low Income Home Energy Assistance Programs (LIHEAP) and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs (SNAP) have already done a lot of work determining eligibility for their programs, so partnering with these groups is a good start to help determine eligibility for CAPs.
Berahzer cautioned that utilities should be careful when using numbers to determine eligibility because numbers don’t always tell the whole story. For example, the lifeline rate is used by many utilities where a minimum amount of water is provided at a reduced rate regardless of income level or ability to pay. One issue with a lifeline rate is that it is not specifically targeted. What if a low-income household is large and therefore its water needs are larger than the lifeline rate permits? Likewise, using Median Household Income (MHI) has its limitations. To illustrate, Berahzer and her team compared three communities with similar MHIs. Although the communities had similar MHIs, they had very different levels of SNAP and Social Security benefits and employment rates, among other factors. The lesson is to look beyond the numbers to determine eligibility criteria.
Where the rubber really meets the road, according to Berahzer, is in funding CAP programs through use of rate revenue where higher fees from high-income customers are used to assist low-income customers. Rate revenue is controversial, so Berahzer and her team looked at laws nationwide to see which states provide a green light. Most states are in the yellow zone, where it is not clear if utilities are legally able to use rate revenue to provide affordable water to low-income households or not. Often the legal language is vague and there is very little case law. It is hoped that other states will eventually follow examples like Washington where utilities clearly have the green light to use rate revenue to fund CAPs.
And finally, assuming that some cities and utilities have successfully adopted CAPs, it is critical to ensure that people actually sign up for the program. Outreach has turned out to be one of the biggest stumbling blocks when it comes to implementing a successful CAP. Reasons for failed outreach include that many households don’t have a relationship with their service provider so they may be unaware of the program, there are often multiple families in a household so it is difficult for a utility to establish a specific contact, and some landlords have increased rent to offset costs to fix plumbing in order to comply with a CAP. In short, the road to a successful CAP requires planning and targeted strategies.
Honing in specifically on the financial considerations of the water affordability issue, Roger Colton put it simply, “If your customers can’t afford to pay, you as a utility have a business problem.” Colton felt it important to present water affordability as a business case and to help utilities understand that in the end, it’s all about paying back bonds with cash. “Why send out a bill that you know people can’t pay?” Colton asked. Likewise, why go after debt you know you can’t collect? Colton’s advice was to send out smaller bills through water affordability programs that have a higher chance of being paid at a higher percentage of the total bill. This approach reduces the cost of collection as well as the cost of disconnecting service once an account is declared uncollectable. Colton is an advocate of income based affordability programs because as he sees it, affordability programs allow utilities to decrease the amount of uncollectable debt, collect more money and put in less effort to get it.
In Atlanta 23% of households are at or below the federal poverty level. On top of the high poverty level, Atlanta has the third highest water rates in the US, so water affordability issues impact almost 50% of city residents. In addition, Atlanta’s long-term debt was at $3.5B in 2009. Fortunately water rates have been stabilized thanks to Atlanta’s Department of Watershed Management (DWM) having access to a 1% Municipal Option Sales Tax. To address its long-term debt, DWM created a strategic plan with three key programs to address water affordability including Care and Conserve, Senior Discount and Streamwork. Essential to each of these programs is the need to understand the customer’s point of view. As Balla put it, “Most people want to do the right thing. They want to pay their bills.”
With the Care and Conserve program, one of the key issues is customer education. In low–income areas, what may appear to be a household with high water usage is actually a major leak a landlord is not fixing, thus forcing tenants to pay a large water bill. As part of customer education, households are made aware that the landlord is responsible for fixing the plumbing problem. Financial assistance is provided on a case-by-case basis with assistance up to $1,000 available for bill assistance and up to $3,000 available for plumbing assistance.
Atlanta’s senior discount program is geared toward its high percentage of residents on fixed income. These customers receive a 30% discount on water/sewer bills with approximately $1M of total discounts provided each year.
A large number of DWM’s employees are approaching retirement and those workers need to be replaced. However, many young people aren’t considering the water industry as a career pathway. So DWM aligned with the department of corrections on a work re-entry program called Streamwork. The program is thus far very successful and is in alignment with DWM’s philosophy that people are an essential part of its infrastructure and as such, must be considered before pipes, plants and payments.
Philadelphia’s Water Department (PWD) created the groundbreaking income based water tariff system known as the Tiered Assistance Program (TAP). Through TAP, households are charged a percentage of total monthly income (between 2 and 4%) based on the household’s percentage of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL), with the lowest percentages of FPL being charged the lowest percentage of income. According to Debra McCarty, to date PWD has received over 29,000 TAP applications, with over 9,900 households approved and the number of approved households growing daily.
Some unique features of TAP are that customers don’t have to be delinquent to get into the program and that the program is simple, with only one easy to fill out application and one set monthly fee. McCarty described how PDW did a lot of work up front to understand customer needs and, with the help of behavioral scientists, created clear messaging that resonated with customers.
Key to the program’s success was preparedness. PDW hired 22 employees to manage the program, including a communications team to develop customer stories to increase engagement. A robust pre-launch informational campaign included flyers, posters, a website, radio ads, bus banners and subway platform ads to encourage participation.
Although each panelist provided specific information and examples for other utilities to consider in developing their own water affordability programs, when moderator Matthew Braunginn asked what cities should do first, there was agreement among the panelists that up front multi-stakeholder engagement is critical to affordability program success. In addition, Mohamed Balla urged that affordability programs first be structured for those most in need. Balla also declared the need for a mindset change. Many low-income people are conditioned to think that one person’s gain is another one’s loss, so it’s critical for affordability programs to show that one person’s win is actually a win for everyone, he said.
Roger Colton emphasized the need to set ideology aside and understand that water is a business and that businesses need to run on sound financial footing; otherwise they can’t provide the vital water resources needed by all. Colton also stressed the importance of data collection and knowing how much a utility is collecting as a percentage of bills as a baseline. He emphasized that an affordability program is more cost effective and better for the bottom line than collections.
Questions from the audience led to some memorable pieces of advice from panelists including that when building the business case for water affordability, its also important to acknowledge that making water affordable is simply the right thing to do. Several panelists called out the inefficiency of trying to fix the water affordability problem after it has become seemingly insurmountable. The key is to prevent a water affordability crisis in the first place by addressing the issue early, planning for the implementation of an affordability program years in advance and learning from others.
Developing a New Framework for Community Affordability of Clean Water Services, National Academy of Public Administration , October 1st, 2017. More information on this article can be found here.
Flint Water Interagency Coordinating Committee Water Rates Subcommittee Recommendations, Flint Water Interagency Coordinating Committee Water Rates Subcommittee, July 21st, 2017. More information on this article can be found here.
Upgrading Our Water Systems: A National Overview of State-level Funding Initiatives, Vivian Chang, Jersey Water Works, June 1st, 2017. More information on this article can be found here.
Go Back to the Well: States and the Federal Government are Neglecting a Key Funding Source for Water, rOB mOORE, mADDIE aTKINS, Natural Resources Defense Council, May 1st, 2018. More information on this article can be found here.
City of Philadelphia FAQ: Tiered Assistance Program (TAP), City of Philadelphia . Download a PDF of this article.
Assistance Programs (Chapter 2), Philadelphia Water Department, June 30th, 2017. More information on this article can be found here.
Rates and Charges, Philadelphia Water Department, January 3rd, 2017. More information on this article can be found here.
Navigating Legal Pathways To Rate-Funded Customer Assistance Programs, Environmental Finance Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. More information on this article can be found here.
Review and Recommendations for Implementing Water and Wastewater Affordability Programs in the US, National Consumer Law Center, March 1st, 2014. More information on this article can be found here.
The Threat of Privatization for the Emerging Generation, Joelle Gamble and Aman Banerji, Roosevelt Institute, March 27th, 2017. Download a PDF of this article.
Baltimore’s Conundrum: Charging for Water/Wastewater Services that Community Residents Cannot Afford, Roger Colton, Food and Water Watch, November 1st, 2017. More information on this article can be found here.
Best Practices in Customer Payment Assistance Programs, John E. Cromwell, III, Roger D. Colton, Scott J. Rubin, Charles N. Herrick, Jane Mobley, Kelly Reinhardt, and Rea Wilson, Water Research Foundation & EPA, December 31st, 1969. More information on this article can be found here.
Safeguarding Water Affordability, Steve Bartlett, Henry Cisneros, Patrick Decker, George Heartwell, Aldie Warnock, Bipartisan Policy Center, September 1st, 2017. Download a PDF of this article.
An Equitable Water Future for All, US Water Alliance, October 1st, 2016. Download a PDF of this article.
Compendium of Drinking Water and Wastewater Customer Assistance Programs, EPA. More information on this article can be found here.
This compendium of Drinking Water and Wastewater Customer Assistance Programs describes the benefits, implementation, and examples of customer assistance programs (CAPs) throughout the country.
Customer Assistance Programs for Multi-Family Residential and Other Hard-to-Reach Customers, Janet Clements, Robert Raucher, Karen Raucher, Lorine Giangola, Michael Duckworth, Stacey Isaac Berahzer, Jeff Hughes, Scott Rubin, Roger Colton , Water Research Foundation, August 1st, 2017. More information on this article can be found here.
“The objective of this project is to provide water utilities with an array of pragmatic options, evaluation criteria, lessons learned, and guidance for developing customer assistance programs”
The Invisible Crisis: Water Unaffordability in the United States, Patricia A. Jones, Amber Moulton, Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, May 26th, 2016. Download a PDF of this article.
Seattle Public Utilities Low Income Housing Water Conservation Assistance Program Summar, Seattle Public Utilities . Download a PDF of this article.
Rates, Bills, Costs & Consumption: The “Conservation Conundrum”, Ray Hoffman, Seattle Public Utilities, October 21st, 2014. Download a PDF of this article.
Integrated Water Management Resource Center, American Rivers, June 1st, 2016. Read more.
Philadelphia | Pennsylvania