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New EPA guidance on clean water payments still unfairly burdens low-income residents, advocates say

Map of the United States showing the regional average of annual clean water charges in 2021.
National Association of Clean Water Agencies
In NACWA's Cost of Clean Water Index for 2021, the organization found that single-family residences in Region 4, which encompasses Florida, were charged on average $589 for services.

Residents living in low-income households across the country are telling advocates, "We're sometimes having to make a choice. What do I pay this month? Do I pay my water bill and my sewer bill? Do I pay my gas bill? Do pay my electric bill? Do I pay for my medications?"

Communities face significant costs adhering to standards set by the federal Clean Water Act, which governs pollution control and water quality in the nation's waterways.

So, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency provides what's called Financial Capability Assessment Guidance for states to estimate how much communities should spend based on median income. But the EPA has been encouraged by some, including Congress, to update its guidelines so low-income households are not disproportionately affected.

The original guidance document was issued in 1997, and as economic situations, both nationally and locally have changed, it became increasingly outdated.

“What the previous guidance tried to do was take a snapshot of essentially the median household income of a community,” said Nathan Gardner-Andrews, chief Advocacy and Policy Officer for the National Association of Clean Water Agencies.

“The problem with that approach that became very clear over the decades, is that median household income is just that — it looks at the income across the entire community. And what it wasn't doing was actually taking into account the fact that there were households at the lower level, if you will, of the income distribution bracket, who are paying a disproportionately higher rate of their income.”

After five years of anticipation for a guideline overhaul, he said the latest documentreleased by the EPA on Feb. 1, 2023 still does not address this issue.

“Not only does it not solve the problem of looking at the true impacts on low-income communities, but from our perspective, it's actually going to make the problem worse,” said Gardner-Andrews.

“What it continues to do is mask the true impact of these additional investments on the lowest percentage of households, and creates an additional layer — essentially bureaucratic layer of hurdles — that a community would have to jump through to prove that it needs more time to make these investments.”

Click here to view 2021 NACWA Cost of Clean Water Index

Gardner-Andrews said he asked the EPA to show what the impact of rising water and sewer bills will be on that lowest 20% of households in a given community.

He described a push and pull between how much time a community should have to implement certain measures to meet federal guidelines versus how much money they can afford to spend.

“The way to think about it is an accordion,” he said. “A more wealthy community may be able to meet its obligations in a shorter period of time. A community with less resources, you may need to stretch that accordion out a little bit to provide it more time so you don't bankrupt the community in making those investments. And this document is a critical document in kind of figuring out where community falls on that spectrum.”

A spokesperson for the EPA said in an email that the FCA Guidance was drafted to ensure that Clean Water Act protections serve every American, with provisions to encourage local municipalities to reduce those impacts and ensure water services are timely, affordable and equitable.

"The FCA Guidance incentivizes municipalities to describe their strategies for lowering costs and reducing impacts on low-income households before immediately going to extended schedules, which sometimes can prolong vulnerable communities’ exposure to environmental pollution. EPA is also offering technical assistance to help communities consider and pursue available alternatives,” the EPA spokesperson said in an email.

"The FCA Guidance retains the consideration of impacts to households by considering costs as a percentage of median household income. This metric is supplemented by benchmarks such as a community’s lowest quintile income and other poverty factors, which are readily available from publicly available data sources. In addition, communities may provide information about local considerations that may not be fully captured by the approach detailed in the guidance."

There are federal programs that assist residents who have trouble paying for food and energy costs, but Nathan Gardner-Andrews said there's no permanent federal program in place to help with water payments.

Members of NACWA have spoken to people in low-income households across the country who are struggling.

“They're telling our members, ‘We're sometimes having to make a choice: What do I pay this month? Do I pay my water bill and my sewer bill? Do I pay my gas bill? Do pay my electric bill? Do I pay for my medications?’" Gardner-Andrews said.

When asked how climate change could potentially increase rates in places like Florida, he pointed to the state’s main source of water: aquifers.

“Over time, those aquifers are going to be threatened by sea level rise and saltwater intrusion, and so you're gonna have to look for other sources,” Gardner-Andrews said.

“In Florida, at least, I know a lot is being done is to look at water reuse- how do you take existing water and reuse it, both for industrial but also for domestic purposes?" he said. "And there's fascinating technology that can do that, but yes, it does cost more money.”

This story has been updated to include the EPA's response, which came after publication.

My main role for WUSF is to report on climate change and the environment, while taking part in NPR’s High-Impact Climate Change Team. I’m also a participant of the Florida Climate Change Reporting Network.
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