New Bipartisan Bill Aims to Advance Water Affordability

It is, by now, beyond dispute that the United States needs increased federal, state, and local funding to cover the tremendous costs of repairing, replacing, and upgrading our aging and inadequate water, wastewater, and stormwater infrastructure. We rely on these systems to deliver safe drinking water; protect our rivers, streams, lakes, and coastal waters; and protect communities against flooding. 

Critically, we must make these new investments in ways that ensure that all communities can afford to upgrade their water infrastructure and that everyone has affordable access to clean, safe, and sufficient water and sanitation for their families. We cannot, as a society, “afford” the alternative: a two-tiered system where the wealthy get water that is clean and safe for their families, and the less well-to-do get second-class water, wastewater, and stormwater systems that pose risks to their health and environment.

Achieving this vision requires not only more total dollars. It also requires an equitable allocation of new and existing funds to communities in need; affordable access for every household to high quality water and sanitation; and smarter approaches to managing our water resources and improving our water infrastructure, which rely on cost-effective, sustainable, and science-based approaches to protect human health and the environment.

Today marks one step forward for efforts to ensure universal access to affordable water and sanitation. Sen. Cardin of Maryland announced the introduction of the first bipartisan bill focused on improving the affordability of water and sewer service for low-income customers. The Low-Income Water Customer Assistance Programs Act of 2018 (S. 3564), co-sponsored by Sen. Wicker of Mississippi, would create a pilot program of grants to municipalities and local or regional utilities to help low-income households afford their water, wastewater, and stormwater bills.

NRDC is proud to have helped develop the legislation. Through the Clean Water for All coalition, we also organized 52 organizations—including social and environmental justice, public health, green and affordable housing, interfaith, rural, labor, and environmental groups—to join a letter supporting the bill.

Residential water and sewer rates have increased at three times the rate of inflation over the last decade. Because utility customers are the principal source of dedicated funding for systems, rates will continue to increase as the bill for overdue investment in our water infrastructure comes due. At the same time, real growth in income has been relatively stagnant and income inequality has increased in recent decades. As a result, water and sewer costs are becoming increasingly expensive—as a share of household income—for many lower-income people. 

When people are unable to pay their water and sewer bills, they face water shutoffs and liens on their property, which can lead to serious adverse health consequences, loss of access to housing, and even loss of custody of children. This is not a situation we should tolerate in America—or anywhere.

Further, this issue affects everyone who counts on their local water and sewer systems to deliver safe and clean water, not only those who struggle to pay their own bills. High rates of customer non-payment due to unaffordable bills mean either that the costs of filling budget gaps will be reallocated to other paying customers, or that the system will not generate sufficient revenues to provide clean, safe water and sewer services. Concerns about affordability for low-income customers also lead many systems to avoid necessary rate increases—rather than finding ways to generate more total revenue while equitably distributing costs among customers.

In the electric and gas utility sector, programs to provide assistance to low-income customers are well-established, including the federally funded Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). The water sector, however, lacks a comparable federal program, and local programs are currently the exception rather than the rule. Further, most existing local programs are inadequate to meet demand.

The bill announced today would begin to address this gap by creating a pilot program of grants to at least 32 drinking water systems and 32 wastewater or stormwater systems, including a specific number of small, medium, and large systems (based on population served). The bill includes provisions to help ensure that participating utilities will design and implement their programs using established best practices for low-income customer assistance, including options such as bill discounts or other direct financial assistance, lifeline rates, percentage-of-income payment plans, and water efficiency assistance.

The bill also includes provisions to ensure that the pilot grants support local efforts to equitably fund compliance with Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act standards, and to encourage a state or local match to the federal grant. Additionally, it requires a pair of reports to Congress—one on the lessons learned from implementing the pilot program, and one providing an assessment of the need for a nationwide, rural and urban low-income community water assistance program.

The federal government should not shoulder responsibility for addressing water affordability challenges alone. States and local utilities can do much to improve low-income affordability with the policy tools and resources they have available. But the Low-Income Water Customer Assistance Programs Act of 2018 is a vital component of bipartisan federal efforts to increase investment in water and sewer infrastructure. The next Congress needs to adopt a major water infrastructure funding package. Initiatives like this bill, which focus on ensuring low-income households have affordable access to safe water and sanitation, should be an integral part of that package.

About the Authors

Larry Levine

Senior Attorney and Director, Urban Water Infrastructure, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

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