Faster paths to safer and cleaner water
Every American depends on clean water to survive, and more than 50,000 public and private water utilities provide it to us. Water is essential to the farmers that produce our food, provides wildlife habitat, and is the basis for enormous recreational and economic opportunities. Federal and state laws, conservation programs and assistance, and government funding and financing have each played a role in helping the country achieve cleaner, safer, and more abundant water. We work on a number of new areas of policy that are helping make more progress possible.
BUILDING HEALTH EQUITY IN WATER DECISIONS
The water sector needs to consider health equity in its decisions, from siting to policy, all the way upto personnel. That might include faster replacement of unsafe lead water pipes in disadvantaged communities, or ensuring the utility leadership is reflective of the community's diversity. We believe it is the only way the water sector will be resilient, inclusive, and trustworthy. We work to make policy (local to federal) more supportive of those goals and to replicate successful examples. Our report, H2Equity: Building a Fair System of Water Services for America, lays out a few steps of what might be a blueprint for doing so.
WATER INFRASTRUCTURE FINANCE
We support initiatives to use private funding or innovative contracting to deliver the water goal faster. That might include faster replacement of unsafe lead water pipes serving daycare centers, or speeding up green infrastructure installation to more quickly lower nitrogen, phosphorus, or sediment. We work to make policy more supportive of those goals and to create an incentive for faster success. For example, we analyzed how two local jurisdictions used Public Private Partnerships and Pay for Success contracts to allow the private sector to quickly meet stormwater goals that benefit the Chesapeake Bay and expand green jobs.
AFFORDABLE WATER SERVICES
Across the United States, drinking water and wastewater costs have more than doubled since 2000, far exceeding price increases of electricity, rent, and gasoline. Higher water rates are a crippling burden for low-income households. Water utilities need a viable strategy to ensure that their most disadvantaged customers aren’t shut off from water services. As the COVID-19 crisis demonstrated, water utilities are one economic shock away from a financial crisis. Utilities have a transactional relationship with their customers, but they tend to survive and even thrive when their customers are doing well.
Profitable stream and wetland restoration
Private, for-profit efforts to protect and restore wetlands has become a billion-dollar enterprise in the United States, now expanded to achieve some of the same benefits for thousands of miles of streams. Clear, predictable Clean Water Act regulations were critical to this success in building a restoration economy. Private restoration expertise, backed by private funding, is now being used by state and local governments in more places to deliver additional water, ecosystem, and habitat benefits as we describe in our report on Pay for Success approaches in conservation. We support work that redirects government policy away from grants and toward programs that pay farmers, ranchers, nonprofits, or businesses when they produce water outcomes that the public values.
Data technology is critical to make environmental markets work. Monitoring innovations are often the best way to build public trust in environmental programs. Software is increasingly as valuable to farmers as human technical assistance in figuring out precisely where to farm, install conservation practices, or apply chemicals and fertilizer in ways that enhance profits and sustainability. New sensors and other equipment are making it possible for the first time to implement ecosystem service payment programs on a large scale. We are trying to develop new policy approaches that are interdependent with technology and that provide more customization and predictability to rules and incentives, thus benefiting the economy and environment.
Innovative water quality partnerships
We work to help create policies that encourage previously unlikely but mutually beneficial partnerships around clean water. For example, cities or suburbs face the need to install expensive water treatment to prevent stormwater and runoff from poisoning streams, rivers, and some of America’s biggest water bodies like the Chesapeake Bay and Gulf of Mexico. However, if regulators let them, those cities and suburbs can often achieve the same water quality goal at a much lower price by working with partners in other parts of the watershed to install green infrastructure and conservation practices. Our work is focused on supporting the development of municipal-agricultural partnerships that are a win for both and for the environment. We've summarized and looked in depth at 20 ways to pay for these partnership.
GAPS IN WATER BILL ASSISTANCE PROGRAMS
Across the United States, drinking water and wastewater costs have more than doubled since 2000, far exceeding price increases of electricity, rent, and gasoline. Apart from innovations in rate-setting to redistribute the cost of water service among low- and high-water users, water utilities have turned to customer assistance programs (CAPs). Our report, H2Affordability: How Water Bill Assistance Programs Miss the Mark, evaluated assistance programs offered by 20 of the largest water utilities and found that programs meant to help low-income customers pay their water bills are poorly designed and leave out deserving customers. The report concludes with several policy recommendations to improve current customer assistance programs - and ultimately improve equity and affordability.
RE-ENVISIONING WATER QUALITY REPORTS
Every drinking water utility in America is supposed to provide their customers with a report (the 'consumer confidence report') each year with testing data on what's in the water - whether its safe to drink. But most reports are extremely hard to understand, available primarily in English, and in limited formats. In 2020, we launched a data competition and invited submissions to better show or visualize this information so it would be more useful to consumers. We got a number of fantastic submissions. Our report, Re-envisioning Water Quality Reports, captures some of the top themes from those submissions and presents recommendations for utilities and regulators to put the 'consumer' in consumer confidence reports.
ANALYZING PUBLIC COMMENTS ON PROPOSED LEAD REGULATIONS
The proposed revisions to the EPA rule on lead and copper regulations in drinking water attracted nearly 80,000 comments. Our report, Analyzing Public Comments on the Proposed Changes to the Lead and Copper Rule using Natural Language Processing, assessed the nature of sentiment and topics expressed by the commenters. Natural language processing is an exciting tool to process a large set of text, but our assessment concluded that currently available techniques are not sufficient to parse language and tone to provide decisive conclusions about the authors’ intent and judgment.
UTILITY CONSOLIDATION TO ACHIEVE HEALTH EQUITY
State policies on consolidation and system governance play a greater role than federal policies on the number of systems in an area and the reliability of their service. Using publicly-available EPA data, we created a new, interactive tool to visually analyze the structure of community water systems across states. This tool helps identify patterns among states and provides an easy-to-use first step to assess consolidation opportunities at the state level. The report, Outliers in Utility Consolidation, presents some noteworthy states for further analysis.
HEALTH EQUITY IN WATER SERVICES
Our report, H2Equity: Rebuilding a Fair System of Water Services for America provides a strategic overview of water services in the country, their connection to health equity issues, and opportunities to address those issues. The report captures our best insights into how to make the most dramatic impacts that will have health, cultural, behavioral, and economic impacts that extend well beyond the strategies themselves and help the water sector get at the root causes of and key obstacles to health equity in water infrastructure. The Executive Brief summarizes the key strategies discussed in the report. Extended materials can be found on this dedicated page.
STRENGTHENING URBAN-RURAL CONNECTIONS
In cooperation with the Sand County Foundation, our report, “Strengthening Urban-Rural Connections” describes 20 ways cities, towns, and water utilities can pay for water quality improvements on farms and get regulatory credit for doing so. The Executive Brief summarizes the key strategies discussed in the report.
RURAL WATER QUALITY INVESTMENT
In cooperation with the Sand County Foundation and National Wildlife Federation, our “Municipal-Agricultural Watershed Partnerships Guide” describes new approaches to efficiently achieve water quality outcomes by having cities and town negotiate plans and agreements that paying nearby farmers who voluntarily find ways to reduce nutrient runoff from their lands.
PAY FOR SUCCESS PODCAST
Radio Public and Bionic Planet taped an in depth interview with EPIC founder, Timothy Male, on the ways that Pay for Success contracts, Public Private Partnerships, and private sector-led restoration work are providing rapid and visible progress in conservation, especially for wetlands and urban stormwater management.
STORMWATER INNOVATION: A tale of two counties, one city, and how to implement effective approaches to reverse the harm from polluted runoff
"Stormwater Innovation" is our report analyzing how two of the leading local governments in the country are succeeding or failing to deliver effective stormwater projects on public and private land.
CONSERVATION & IMPACT INVESTMENT
"Nature: Paid on Delivery" is our report describing leadership by Louisiana, California, Maryland, and Nevada in creating outcome-based opportunities for private investment in natural resource restoration and protection.