Focusing on true 'water equity' will bring higher quality water accessible to all 

The past 18 months have reinforced how crucial safe and reliable water service is to protect public health, while the economic consequences of the pandemic have underscored the need to maintain the affordability of this vital resource. 

As consumers, we are keenly aware of the effect inflation is having on our daily lives. From groceries to gasoline, costs are increasing at levels we have not seen in almost 40 years. As many Americans struggle with the rising costs of goods and services, we know everyone needs and deserves access to safe, affordable and reliable water.

Some advocates champion artificially low rates as the benchmark for affordability, while a vocal minority even call for water to be a completely free commodity. This line of thinking is misaligned with the cost of service that comes with providing water and wastewater services.

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Those approaches are shortsighted and show a misunderstanding of what it takes to provide safe, reliable water service at affordable rates, because access to water that isn’t safe to drink is unjust at any price. Now more the ever, the conversation about the affordability of utility service is evolving beyond just rates.

Those who are making decisions for water suppliers with artificially low rates are often local elected officials who lack the political will to increase rates to cover needed investments and upgrades. For these systems, water service may be “cheap,” but the reality is that too often that cheap water isn’t safe to drink or available when customers need it. Here the adage rings true — you get what you pay for.

We are at a crossroads when it comes to addressing failing water infrastructure issues in places including Flint, Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Newark. The myopic view of cheap or free water comes at the expense of water quality and reliable service. It also perpetuates environmental injustices instead of providing a real solution.

Through the National Association of Water Companies (NAWC), America’s water companies have set out to find a solution that focuses on advancing “water equity” — not just affordability. True water equity requires a multi-pronged approach addressing safety, reliability and affordability.

Recognizing that ensuring customer access to high-quality, reliable drinking water cannot be achieved by keeping water rates artificially low, we established guiding principles to achieve true water equity. To secure our most valuable, finite resource for generations to follow, we must recognize the importance of water system compliance that meets and exceeds state and federal standards.

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First, everyone deserves access to water that is safe, reliable and affordable. Every water system, regardless of size or who operates it, should be required to meet the same high standards, disclose whether those standards are being achieved, and face consequences if those standards are not met.

Second, customers must continue to be the top priority for water providers, regulators and lawmakers. As a nation, we must advance programs that promote water equity to ensure that customers of all income levels have access to high-quality water.

The reality is some customers struggle to pay their bills. Water companies have responded to this need by creating customer assistance programs and advocating for federal funding for low-income assistance programs.

To build on the success of these programs, NAWC and its member companies are asking Congress to enact a permanent program and fund low-income water access at the same levels as assistance programs for natural gas and electric utilities.

Third, we also recognize that to help our communities and make lasting change, we must go beyond assistance programs. Fundamental flaws in America’s water grid should be addressed through partnerships and consolidation. 

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About 50,000 water systems are in operation throughout the United States — compared to just 3,300 electric utilities — with more than half of these serving fewer than 500 customers. Without economies of scale, many small systems are unable to invest in infrastructure, deploy new technology or address affordability issues.

Partnering with a larger, more experienced utility is a proven way for smaller or struggling systems to obtain the resources necessary to maintain their infrastructure and provide customers with safe and reliable water at stable prices.

Policies that encourage and facilitate partnerships and consolidation are critical to making certain safe reliable water is available across the nation. Water system fragmentation increases costs and often decreases water quality, also perpetuating environmental injustice and causing disproportionate harm to low-income communities.

Finally, failing to invest in water infrastructure results in unreliable service, low water quality, and harm to low-income communities. Incremental and consistent investment in the nation’s aging water infrastructure allows costs to be incurred gradually. Also, costs that are more easily budgeted-for by the utility can help prevent sharp rate increases for customers.

While the path to water equity is complex, those who choose to make water service solely about cost are presenting a short-sighted view about the reality. The path to true water equity ensures safe and reliable water in addition to affordable water.

By ensuring that all water providers adhere to these principles — meeting water quality standards, offering customer assistance options, addressing fundamental flaws in our water grid, and investing in infrastructure — we will move closer to guaranteeing everyone has access to water. At the same time, we will fulfill a promise to everyone that when they turn on their taps, they know their water is safe, reliable and affordable. Our goal is simple — to build a more sustainable water grid for generations to come.

Robert F. Powelson is the president and CEO of the National Association of Water Companies (NAWC). He joined NAWC after serving on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Powelson previously  served on the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission from 2008-2017, spending four years as Commission chairman. Powelson is the past president of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC) and chairman of NARUC Committee on Water.