Water affordability bill introduced in U.S. Senate

June 28, 2018

Marian Swain

Citing the growing burden that rising water bills present for many American households, U.S. Senator Kamala Harris, Democrat of California, introduced the Water Affordability Act of 2018 earlier this month. The bill would establish a federal program called the Low Income Sewer and Water Assistance Program (LISWAP) that would provide grants to eligible municipal utilities to help low-income residents pay their water and sewer bills. 

In a press release, Senator Harris stated her motivation for the legislation in stark terms: “No family should have to choose between paying for safe, clean drinking water and putting food on the table.” Senator Harris explains that her constituents in Los Angeles and San Francisco have experienced dramatic increases in water rates over the last decade, a problem that hits low-income households the hardest. But the water affordability crisis is by no means limited to California: rapidly rising water rates have become a fact of life in cities across the country.

Harris’s bill proposes a pilot program that would fund at least 10 water and sewer utilities that already have consent decrees with the federal government regarding their compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act. These utilities would be directed to use the grant funding to help low-income customers (defined as those receiving federal benefits or below 150% of the federal poverty level) and “environmentally at-risk” customers (defined as those living near hazardous sites or in an EPA-identified environmental justice area) maintain access to water and sanitation services. The bill would require a report to Congress on the results of the LISWAP pilot program after one year. 

Since water utilities are run at the local level, the landscape of water assistance programs is highly fragmented across the country. Some cities, notably Philadelphia, have begun developing comprehensive affordability programs to help low-income residents who are behind on their bills and facing water shutoffs. However, a federal program like Senator Harris’s LISWAP would be a lifeline for municipalities that are struggling to both fund critical infrastructure investments and also ensure that low-income families can keep the water on.  

The name and concept of the proposed LISWAP program evokes the existing Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) program, a federal program that provides funds for low-income families to pay for home heating and cooling bills. Water affordability advocates have long lamented that there is no federal equivalent of LIHEAP for water, even though access to clean water is arguably just as vital a basic service as heating or cooling. A recent white paper from the Brookings Institution, a public policy think-tank, cited the LIHEAP model as a precedent for the water sector and argues for the creation of a federal low-income water assistance program like the one Senator Harris has now proposed. 

Unfortunately, the Water Affordability Act is unlikely to get much traction in this Congress. The bill does not have a funding proposal attached and has been referred to the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, where it may languish. However, the bill has received praise from environmental advocacy groups, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, and the Association of California Water Agencies.

The water affordability issue is a growing one; tackling it will demand local, state, and federal action. Just last week, dozens of activists were arrested in Detroit during a protest of the city’s water shutoff policy. Congress would do well to consider Senator Harris’s bill and other measures to help alleviate the growing water affordability crisis in many American cities.

Image credit: WhiteHouse.gov