Welcome to “What’s Up With Water,” your need-to-know news of the world’s water from Circle of Blue. This is Eileen Wray-McCann.
In Afghanistan, a UN food agency says that humanitarian aid must increase in order to stem a severe hunger crisis. Nineteen million people in the country are not getting enough calories each day. Richard Trenchard of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization says that without outside assistance, that number could rise to nearly 23 million by the end of the year. Afghanistan’s food emergency began earlier this year with a sharp drought that decimated crops and livestock herds. The hunger crisis worsened along with the country’s political deterioration, which culminated in the Taliban takeover in August. Trenchard underscored the importance of supporting farmers through this tumultuous period. Seventy percent of Afghanistan’s people live in rural areas and 80 percent make their living through farming. If agriculture collapses, said Trenchard, “We risk catastrophe.”
In the United States, New Jersey’s largest city is removing lead pipes faster than expected. After three years, nearly all of the 20,000 lead service lines in Newark have been replaced, according to the Associated Press. City leaders had expected the project to take up to 10 years. But an infusion of state and local funds helped to speed things up. Newark began replacing the pipes in 2019, following the discovery of high lead levels in tap water in schools and homes. Other cities with lead pipes could soon see accelerated pipe-removal similar to Newark. The federal infrastructure bill that Congress approved on November 8 includes $15 billion for removing lead pipes.
This week Circle of Blue reports on the development of a federal water-bill assistance program in the U.S. and what is slowing it down.
Last December, as the pandemic stressed household finances, Congress authorized the first-ever federal program to help low-income residents pay overdue water bills. Lawmakers provided $638 million to set the program up and assist households with their water debt. Four months later, in March 2021, federal lawmakers doubled down on the approach. They added $500 million, bringing total funding to more than $1.1 billion for the Low-Income Household Water Assistance Program, known as LIHWAP.
Today, households are still waiting for that relief. No LIHWAP funding has been delivered to customers. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which is in charge of the program, told Circle of Blue it has disbursed $855 million to states. But states are merely an intermediary. Once they have the funds, states then work with community agencies or individual utilities to identify eligible households and get them to apply for aid. Approved households will see a credit on their utility bill. That has not yet happened. Those versed in the workings of federal benefits programs and water utility operations knew that starting a new initiative, even one modeled after a federal aid program for energy bills, would not be a swift nor simple task.
Alexandra Campbell-Ferrari is executive director of the research group called the Center for Water Security and Cooperation. She noted two key  hurdles between the funding and the families: limited data and limited interagency connections. Neither federal agencies nor states nor utilities had much data on how much customers might owe or which households were in financial distress. The information gaps left them without the basis for understanding who needs the money. What’s more, the work required them to form new relationships between government and local agencies.
Observers marked other shortcomings – too little money for so great a need, with some of that too little being redirected toward administrative costs and overhead. The national data on customer water debt is limited but the few existing data points show LIHWAP funding would not be sufficient for the scale of the problem. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, for instance, notes $252 million in residential water debt in the state. Yet Michigan’s LIHWAP allocation is just $36 million – a mere seventh of the debt amount.
The LIHWAP funds are available to forty-nine states, the District of Columbia, five territories, and 103 Native American tribes. North Dakota decided not to join the program because it was using other federal funding sources for customer water debt relief.
Though LIHWAP was allocated more than $1.1 billion, not all of that money will go to people in need. It’s a new program, and it needs to build an entire administrative apparatus, with staff, databases, and report tracking. The law requires that these support structures account for no more than 15 percent of the LIHWAP funds. But there are other overhead expenses, as well. Administrative costs don’t include work such as outreach to eligible customers to inform them about the program, or reviewing and following up on applications. States can also apply their share of the LIHWAP funds toward these activities.
In the end, there will be far fewer dollars available to needy households than the $1.1 billion headline suggests. California was allocated $116 million in LIHWAP funds. The state’s work plan, which has federal approval, maps out projected spending. Fifteen percent will go toward administration, and 10 percent toward outreach and determining eligibility. Only three-quarters of the state’s allocation, or $87 million, will reach individual households.
The California Department of Community Services and Development is administering the state’s program, and it says it has more steps to take before households see a benefit. The department will release draft program guidelines in December for public comment. Among other things, the guidelines will determine how funds will be distributed within the state. Once the guidelines are approved, money will be sent to local partner organizations, which will then make payments to utilities on behalf of customers. That is likely to happen early next year, according to the department.
In the meantime, California lawmakers stepped in with their own water bill assistance program. In July, a budget act signed into law allocated $985 million for water bill relief from the federal American Rescue Plan Act. The money aims to help residents pay off past-due water bills that accumulated in the pandemic period between March 4, 2020 and June 15, 2021. California’s debt forgiveness program is run by its State Water Resources Control Board. Unlike the federal program, the board is not using community agencies as intermediaries. Instead, it is sending funds directly to utilities, which will credit customer accounts and waive late fees. Those distributions began this month. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the entity with the greatest need, received $285 million.
The relative speed of this approach contrasts with the slower development of LIHWAP. For a program that was pitched as emergency relief for pandemic-induced financial pressures, a delay of over a year from congressional action to household benefit strikes some as excessive red tape. Kristina Surfus is the managing director of government affairs for the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, a trade group for wastewater utilities. NACWA supports a federal water bill assistance program and Surfus has been tracking the progress of LIHWAP. She told Circle of Blue that NACWA’s members are concerned and frustrated by the slow pace.
Manny Teodoro studies water utilities and public policy at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She said that such delays should have been expected, especially since Congress gave so little guidance on the design of the program. And it’s a complex endeavor: the U.S. political system involves coordination with states, tribes, and territories, not to mention the sheer number of water utilities — nearly 50,000 by one estimate. As Teodoro summed it up: “Creating a new means-tested program from scratch is just really hard in this country.”
For water bill assistance on the federal level, the long-term prospects are unclear. LIHWAP does not have permanent authorization – and Congress is debating the best approach to take after December 31, 2023. That’s the deadline for states to hand out their allocations. The Department of Health and Human Services may have laid the foundation for a structure that will be knocked down in two years.
Clues to the future can be divined in the infrastructure bill that’s now headed to President Biden’s desk. In that behemoth piece of legislation, Congress authorized a water bill assistance pilot program run by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. However, no funding was included – before that happens, the scale of the problem must be determined through a nationwide water affordability assessment. Separately, the president’s social spending bill, the Build Back Better Act, gives the EPA $225 million in fiscal year 2022 to help low-income households pay water debts or reduce their bills.
Surfus said that those two legislative moves suggest that Congress is shifting toward the EPA as the home for a permanent water bill assistance program, if one is eventually created. There are pros and cons. The EPA has existing relationships with water utilities, but it does not have much experience running benefits programs like the Department of Health and Human Services does.
If funding goes to an EPA program, the agency will face a task similar to that of the LIHWAP architects: getting something large built from the ground up. Though some of the foundations of LIHWAP could be transferred, an EPA program would also require staff and paperwork and could not immediately translate funding into assistance. As Surfus put it, “It’s not going to happen overnight.”
And that’s What’s Up With Water from Circle of Blue, which relies more than ever on your support for independent water news and analysis. Right now, your tax-deductible gift goes twice as far, thanks to NewsMatch. It’s a challenge grant will match your one-time or monthly donation dollar for dollar. It’s a limited time offer – so find out more – and make a difference at This is Eileen Wray-McCann – thanks for being here for us.