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Congress can address water affordability to actually help those in need

The Hill logo The Hill 6/8/2021 Alexandra Campbell-Ferrari and Luke Wilson, opinion contributors
a person standing in front of a window: tap water being poured into a drinking glass © The Hill tap water being poured into a drinking glass

As we exit the pandemic, the country is facing the costs from a year of moratoriums, economic stagnation and exceptionally high health care costs. While the economy seems to be regaining its footing, there are many aspects of our day-to-day lives that are in danger of slumping back into the pre-pandemic bad habits and poor practices. One of those areas is the most critical to human survival: water. Without change, we are in danger of shortchanging the water systems that keep us healthy and hydrated.

Several bills have been proposed in Congress to create the first-ever federal water rate assistance program that will specifically assist low-income households. While these bills throw a lot of money at rate assistance - making bills more affordable - they do not take the simple steps needed to keep the water on in these houses and apartments. As Congress debates the options, here is what they must focus on:

First, any law should prohibit systems that take federal money from shutting off water to households unable to pay their water bills and should demand that systems reconnect low-income households that have been previously disconnected. Ending shut-offs for these vulnerable households helps ensure that rate assistance programs are not just a band-aid on systemic problems of affordability. This prohibition will protect access for low-income families.

Second, Congress should prioritize communities with the highest number of citizens at risk of losing access to water. The impacts of the pandemic have not been felt equally in every community. Many of the hardest-hit communities have a greater number of households with arrearages (the amount of money that is past due with water providers), and a large number of households slated for disconnection. Where many households are struggling to pay, Congress should prioritize their communities in receiving federal assistance.

One of the currently debated bills, H.R. 3293, prioritizes community water systems that also operate a wastewater or stormwater system, that are under a consent decree, or have been forced to raise rates by 30 percent or more over the past three years. While these characteristics are important, they will not properly identify systems that need assistance. A better data point is the number of households with arrearages and the number of disconnected households, which captures the existing threat to water access. Focusing on these systems will allow grants to reach the neediest communities and will get the water back on faster.

The programs created by these bills are not intended to address only the short-term impacts of the pandemic, but also to address greater inequality in these communities overall. In order for them to be effective, the final bill should create federal requirements for local drinking water rate assistance programs that will help households regain and maintain access to water.

H.R. 3293, requires that the Environmental Protection Agency develop minimum requirements for these assistance programs. But the bill does not mandate a specific structure for these programs, which will make it harder to guarantee that households stay connected to water. Two of the possible structures - direct financial assistance and bill discounts - are typically one-size-fits-all options in which every qualifying household receives the same percentage or dollar discount. But poverty is not one-size-fits-all. Without more personalized solutions, financial threats will continue. Congress must ensure that minimum program requirements will keep water affordable for all and keep households connected.

Lastly, Congress should reconsider using federal assistance to cover fees and charges that are not directly linked to the cost of providing water. Fees and charges for late payments and non-payments create a bigger financial hole for households already struggling to pay. These fees and charges are often standardized, disconnected from a specific cost. Sometimes, fees and charges are penalties used to incentivize payment. But for low-income households, this incentivization is really a penalization of their poverty. The debt keeps growing, sometimes disincentivizing payment by making the debt appear insurmountable. Congress should ensure that where fees and charges are not connected to a specific cost, they are forgiven for those who cannot pay them.

Congress has made the right decision to address water affordability. For years before the pandemic, rising costs of providing sufficient water were making water inaccessible and leading to long-term shutoffs. Low-income families bore these higher costs, compounded by fees and charges that deepened their financial insecurity.

Congress has the chance to sow the seeds for a more equitable future, one where the need for water shutoffs is almost completely eliminated. We must remember: If we do not preserve water access for all, then what are we paying for?

Alexandra Campbell-Ferrari is the executive director of The Center of Water Security and Cooperation, and an adjunct professor of Water Law at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law and American University Washington College of Law.

Luke Wilson is the deputy director of The Center for Water Security and Cooperation and an adjunct professor of International Law at the George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs.

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