Innovative, Customer-Centric Water Affordability Programs Making Waves Across the U.S.

As we embrace a new year, let this be the year you commit to taking a step (baby or big, it all makes progress) toward tackling water affordability and equity challenges in your community. Resolving to champion these issues isn't just a goal; it's a promise to turn the tide toward a more inclusive, sustainable water future.   

Need some inspiration and ideas for other affordability strategies? Check out these innovative examples I learned about at the recent U.S. Water Alliance Summit, including AWE's Summit presentation about our work with the City of Houston, TX. 

  • Houston Water and AWE Assess Affordability Challenges
    AWE partnered with Houston Water to complete an  Assessment of Water Affordability & Conservation Potential in Houston, Texas. The study found that under the much-needed rate increases planned for Houston, the most impacted households will go from paying about 13 percent of yearly income on water and sewer bills to over 21 percent.  

    AWE worked with Houston to identify ways to improve water affordability, including water efficiency and conservation strategies that could result in an average of 15 percent bill savings, with some customers saving up to 34 percent. Further, Houston Water is developing a direct install pilot to help low-income households replace old plumbing fixtures and appliances with new, high-efficiency models, generously supported by donations from LIXIL and Whirlpool.  Conservation strategies build trust and show you care about your customers. A direct-install program model addresses the resource and time constraints that are common barriers for low-income households to access water efficiency through traditional rebate programs.   
  • PromisePay Steps in to Effectively Roll out LIHWAP in Virginia and Florida  
    Virginia and Florida both faced the risk of losing unspent funds allocated for the federally-funded Low Income Household Water Assistance Program (LIHWAP). However, the introduction of the Promise Program turned that around. Promise administered over $20 million to more than 30,000 households across Virginia and helped Florida distribute over $48 million to 50,000 households in less than five months. Further, the innovative customer-first approach helped Virginia distribute over 75% of its federal allocation, earning additional funding and was recognized for their incredibly successful program implementation. 

    Promise’s outreach approach takes the onus off of the customer to find and participate in the program.  Promise partnered with utilities and used targeted text messaging to eligible customers with a simple application flow and immediate phone support for those needing additional assistance. The use of categorical eligibility to approved state programs greatly reduced the need for document upload removing complexity and fall off during the application process. Categorical eligibility means they leveraged eligibility for other programs to determine eligibility for LIHWAP. Residents simply had to attest that they were already eligible for programs like LIHEAP (Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program) or SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).  Residents didn’t need to upload documents or attend an in-person appointment to complete applications. The outreach approach reaches those unaware of the program, and the elimination of appointments allows folks who live in rural settings equitable access to benefits.   
  • Pittsburgh Launches New Service Line Repair and Water Conservation Pilot Program to Help Low-income Households 
    In September 2023, Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA) launched the Line Repair and Water Conservation Pilot Program. This program provides income-qualified customers with in-home plumbing repairs, water-saving device installations, and enrollment in the Customer Advantage portal. The portal allows PWSA customers to set leak and usage alerts and to view their water use in real-time. The initiative aims to empower customers to control their water usage, resulting in lower bills and more efficient water use at home.  

    Low-income advocates proposed this new effort in a rate case proceeding with the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC), and PWSA petitioned the PUC to explore a pilot program. PWSA has dedicated $324,000 of rate-payer dollars towards the Line Repair and Water Conservation Pilot Program, which is expected to assist about 239 income-eligible customers. PWSA will evaluate the success of this pilot program and, in collaboration with regulators, will determine opportunities to make it a permanent part of their suite of Customer Assistance Programs.  

    In 2021, PWSA formed the PGH20 Cares team, which is a group of education and outreach professionals dedicated to proactively working directly with their most vulnerable customers to bolster enrollment in their customer assistance programs and identify ways to reduce water usage. 
  • St. Paul Grant Advances Smart Meters and Swaps Leaky Toilets to Lower Customer Water Bills 
    Saint Paul Regional Water Services secured a $250,000 grant from the Metropolitan Council to address water conservation and affordability. These funds support the rollout of automated metering infrastructure (AMI) and the replacement of inefficient toilets – both focused on areas of concentrated poverty.  

    The $150,000 for the AMI supported installing 12 collectors, now collecting live meter reads for over 20,000 homes. AMI allows customers to access near real-time data and information about their water use, which can empower them to take actions to reduce water use and lower their water bills. Further, AMI systems can enable proactive leak-notification programs which can alert households to abnormal water use before they get surprised with high water bills or expensive property damage. The $100,000 for toilets supported the replacement of 242 toilets (parts + labor) at no cost to the customers. These toilet replacements are showing an average savings of 40 gallons per day per toilet, which equates to about $84/year for each of these customers.  

Reviewing these examples, you may wonder, "Are water affordability and utility financial stability at odds with one another? Are they friends or foes? Utility bills often impact the financial bottom line for both residents and the utilities themselves. As customer assistance and affordability programs are growing in popularity and adoption rates, utilities may be concerned about how these programs will pencil out.   

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the National Consumer Law Center developed the Water Affordability Advocacy Toolkit, a series of modules about affordability topics and strategies to help advocate change to policymakers, including water conservation and plumbing repair services. As a follow-on effort, NRDC worked with technical experts to develop the Water Affordability Business Case Tool. This tool helps utilities assess the business case for specifically implementing a discount program for low-income customers. “The Tool accounts for offsetting revenue increases and avoided costs resulting from making bills more affordable to customers currently struggling to pay. For example, households receiving affordable bills are far more likely to pay those bills consistently and on time, while utilities save on the cost of collecting unpaid bills.” 

These are just a sampling of the myriad water affordability strategies and programs that communities nationwide utilize to serve their customers' needs better and meet demands equitably. AWE is here to help support your organization as you tackle these challenges. To learn more about how AWE can work with you to advance water affordability in your community, email Liesel.  

*This is part one of a two-part blog series. Tune in in early February for part two!