Webinar Panelists Urge More Attention to Water Customers’ Financial Needs

Lauryn Magno, EPIC Water Policy Fellow

On Thursday, June 24th, EPIC hosted the “Addressing Water Affordability Through Customer Assistance Programs” webinar. Panelists included EPIC’s own Sri Vedachalam, Director of Water; Jonathan Nelson, Policy Director for the Community Water Center; Kahreen Tebeau, Senior Policy Advisor for Seattle Public Utilities; and Tiffani Ashley Bell, the Founding Executive Director for the Human Utility along with moderator Nicole Lampe, Managing Director of the Water Hub

With accessibility to water deemed a necessity for public health during COVID-19, the country witnessed an acceleration of a water debt crisis. Mass water shut off moratoriums were instated as people were unable to afford their water bills. As of January this year, the state of California alone has more than $1 billion in water debt. However, this water affordability issue predates the pandemic.

Attempts to address affordability issues have been implemented in the past, namely customer assistance programs (CAPs), but they are often characterized by onerous documentation requirements, restrictive eligibility criteria such as home ownership, and disproportionate assistance to rates, as panelist Sri Vedachalam stressed. Additionally, there are often power dynamics at play between the utility and the customer that contribute to low enrollment rates which panelist Jonathan Nelson of the Community Water Center pointed out. These barriers to applying and gaining assistance through utilities are key reasons for why enrollment rates often range between 15-25% of potential eligible customers. The application process specifically was noted to be a big barrier to enrollment but several of the panelists offered some optimistic and realistic recommendations. 

Identified from EPIC’s affordability report, eliminating homeownership requirements, supporting linkages to other assistance programs, allowing data sharing across utilities, and streamlining the application process are all ways to encourage enrollment and lower barriers for applicants. Panelist Kahreen Tebeau of Seattle Public Utilities shed light on predictive modeling, a machine learning tool that could be used to implement these kinds of recommendations. The tool uses public census data combined with private utility billing data to generate household level predictions on the likelihood of qualification for the utility discount program. This tool has the potential to reduce utility requirements for income documentation and expansion to other utilities through partnerships. Other outside organizations, like panelist Tiffani Bell’s The Human Utility, which crowdfunds assistance to people who need help with water bills, try to reduce documentation barriers by eliminating homeownership requirements and flexible income threshold requirements. 

The innovation from these recommendations, the predictive modeling tool and flexible eligibility requirements pose promising solutions. However, the panelists recognized that the overall issue extends beyond just utilities and requires federal attention. Many of the panelists used H.R. 3293, the “Low Income Water Assistance Program Act of 2021” as a cornerstone piece of legislation to address the affordability issue with feasible and long-term solutions. While emergency relief programs and assistance from organizations like the Human Utility are crucial to keep the tap running, Tiffani Bell acknowledged that these are temporary solutions to a larger problem that needs to be solved with true affordability, not just occasional assistance. H.R. 3293 seems to be a step in this direction, the panelists agreed. 

Our nation’s water infrastructure is “the result of choices over decades about where we make investments and where we don’t and where certain communities live and where they don’t,” Jonathan Nelson remarked. Big federal investment would support utility needs and ensure that citizens are not the ones footing the bill when rates rise due to infrastructure improvements or other costly endeavors. This panel all agreed that access to clean and affordable water is a basic human right and should be treated as one. In the face of a public health crisis, water is “our most basic form of PPE” and the maintenance of this cornerstone of public health is essential for an equitable COVID recovery, as Jonathan Nelson put it. Federal cooperation to implement “new protections, new [long-term] programs, and new approaches that recognize our unequal history are required for our country to move forward in recovery” and in solving the water affordability crisis.