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INSIGHT: Pandemic Offers Chance to Reshape Conversation Around Water Services

June 5, 2020, 9:01 AM

America’s water utilities of all sizes and geographies have gone to exceptional lengths during this pandemic to ensure uninterrupted, 24/7 access to water services to households and businesses across the country.

In the face of these incredible challenges provided by the Covid-19 pandemic, it is time for federal resources to flow in the form of 100% emergency grants or principle forgiveness loans to ensure that public water and wastewater systems can fulfill their duty to ensure that everyone has access to safe and clean water.

Early on, realizing that a clean and safe water supply was the first line of defense against the coronavirus pandemic, these agencies began restoring service to delinquent accounts and halted service shutoffs—putting the needs of low-income individuals at the forefront.

With businesses shuttered and unemployment on a rapid rise the cost of providing these services to those unable to pay is rapidly expanding.

Estimated $27.5 Billion Revenue Loss

Providing this expensive but much-needed access to water services, coupled with a massive shortfall in revenue as industrial and commercial water users have been put on lockdown and individuals and families are limited in their ability to continue payment as their incomes have decreased, is resulting in an estimated $27.5 billion revenue loss for water and wastewater providers. This, on top of the estimated $1 trillion in funding needed over the next 25 years for infrastructure upgrades, could cripple our existing systems, especially in the smallest and most distressed communities where water access is already at risk.

Take, for example, systems that serve communities of 10,000 or less, which represent 97% of the almost 150,000 public water systems, and 72% of the more than 15,000 public wastewater systems in this country. Many of these systems are reliant on both residential and industrial rate payers, many of whom are impacted by Covid-19 and the systemic issues that already existed in their communities.

For this reason, emergency authority should be granted to allow federal and state agencies to help support operations and maintenance costs due to lost rate revenues during this crisis. Right now, federal agencies can only fund infrastructure improvements and related activities but are unable to invest in operation and management costs—a critical component in the process of providing water services to households across the country.

Similarly, a rate loss protection program would help water agencies of all sizes with essential maintenance costs. The essential services provided by water utilities deserve to be protected by the federal government as a critical component of protecting the public health during the pandemic. In this unprecedented time, the federal government must go above and beyond to ensure the health and safety of all citizens, and access to water services is paramount to those efforts.

Federal Spending Has Fallen Past Three Decades

The federal government’s contribution to water infrastructure capital spending has fallen over the past 30 years from 63% of total capital spending in 1977 to under 10% of total capital spending today. In terms of per capita spending on water infrastructure, federal spending has fallen from $76 per person in 1977 to $11 per person in 2014, according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).

As state budgets begin to shrink due to falling tax revenue from the Covid-19 pandemic, the federal support of state water and wastewater programs that aid and oversee the work of systems across the Nation is more important than ever.

State water and wastewater programs have continued to aid operators of large and small systems impacted by Covid-19, instituted flexibility for sampling and monitoring requirements to assist water and wastewater systems to maintain compliance with regulations while still protecting public and environmental health, and have been a trusted resource for the public when they have questions and want to ensure that water is still safe to drink amidst the pandemic. It is vital that future federal aid support the state water programs that protect both public and environmental health.

More than $40 billion in water and wastewater infrastructure projects are on state priority lists and funding this backlog will ensure they are not further delayed. Getting these projects going now will make our nation more resilient against this and future pandemics while also having enormous additional environmental and public health benefits. Congress must also take into account the ability for water and wastewater projects to put people back to work quickly, a critical consideration with unemployment skyrocketing and county and municipal tax revenue rapidly declining.

Many in Congress are working tirelessly to include financial relief for these utilities to continue to provide this essential service to all—even to those unable to pay—as stimulus package discussions proceed. Similar funding programs to ensure home energy needs are met for low-income households already exist—namely the LIHEAP program—as does one to pay for nutrition, commonly called the Food Stamp program. Water and wastewater service providers should receive the same federal support to serve low-income households. Like electricity and food access, water and sanitation are essential to health and well-being.

This time of enormous challenge for so many should also be an opportunity to rethink and recast our water and wastewater services. A sustainable, long-term federal, state, and local partnership to guarantee clean, safe and affordable water and sanitation services for current users and future generations in communities big and small would be a particularly timely and enduring legacy coming out of this crisis.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

Author Information

Adam Krantz is the CEO of the National Association of Clean Water Agencies. He directs a Washington, D.C., team that advocates on behalf of the nation’s public clean water agencies on an array of regulatory, legislative, legal, and communication initiatives geared toward ensuring sustainable clean water agencies.

Nathan Ohle serves as the CEO of the Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP), a national network of nonprofits focused on access water, economic development, and capacity building for rural communities across the country. RCAP’s work in assisting some of the smallest rural communities in the U.S. helps to build capacity and opportunity in every state across the country.

Alan Roberson is executive director of the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators. ASDWA’s members (the state drinking water agencies) are co-regulators with the Environmental Protection Agency. Roberson has over 29 years of experience in Washington, D.C., on the development of drinking water policy, and federal drinking water regulations on water quality, and security and preparedness issues.

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