Affordable, Safe Water: A Mayor’s Legacy

Few issues are as important to a mayor’s legacy as the safety and sustainability of a city’s infrastructure. In particular, drinking water lies at the intersection of health, climate change, and racial equity. Contaminated or poorly managed water systems threaten to derail entire mayoral agendas. When the situation grows dire, a mayor’s infamous legacy is set.

Yet it does not need to be that way. At MIP, we know that mayors are always seeking solutions that offer co-benefits and opportunities to deepen multi-sector collaborations. By leading on this issue, mayors can build their legacy on a record of fiscal responsibility and safe water for all.

Climate Change

Climate change makes investment in water infrastructure more urgent. Dry climates face more frequent droughts and wildfires, posing new risks to water quality (consider pollution from burned toxic materials) and quantity (such as changing snowmelt patterns). Other areas of the country face a different climate battle: flooding. While heavy precipitation is made more frequent by climate change, its impacts are exacerbated by land use patterns such as large, impervious parking lots, streets without sufficient drainage, and outdated sewer infrastructure.

What you can do:

  • Build cross-governmental and cross-agency/department relationships. Climate resilience planning forces departments out of silos.
  • Up your city’s communications game to share the proactive steps you’re already taking. Build trust, goodwill, and knowledge before an emergency happens.
  • Consider more equitable and climate-aware fee structures. For example, Philadelphia, PA implemented separate stormwater fees based on the size of impervious surfaces, providing a new source of revenue and making green infrastructure improvements more appealing.

Racial Justice and Equity

Low-income people and people of color are more likely to experience violations of the Safe Water Drinking Act, and those same communities live with violations of that law for longer periods of time than do whiter and wealthier communities.

As entities consider lifting COVID moratoriums on service shut offs, city leaders must advocate decision making through a racial justice lens. Low-income ratepayers, who are disproportionately women and people of color, face the most risks from rising rates and bill accumulation, including evictions if the cost of water impacts their ability to pay rent or leads to shut offs.

What you can do:

  • Commit to community outreach and input. In many cases, years of neglect and past high-profile failures mean some communities may be hesitant to engage.
  • Train customer assistance to approach ratepayers from a place of service, rather than as a debt collection agency. Take initiative in reaching out to ratepayers – even if it is just to ask if they are okay.

Financial Stewardship & Infrastructure Investments

It’s no secret that US infrastructure is poorly maintained and in dire need of investment from state and federal government. However, cities can take steps to make their water systems more resilient through equitable and sustainable revenue generation.

What you can do:

  • Implement a more equitable rate structure. Consider income-based rates like Philadelphia’s Tiered Assistance Program, which allow cities to grow their revenue while having consistent payments for those with lower incomes.
  • Review your city’s current customer assistance program (learn more about CAPs with this tool from the Environmental Finance Center). Improve them by partnering with other agencies to lower administrative costs and by addressing the root causes of unpaid, high water bills (such as low-flow toilet incentives like those in Madison, WI).
  • For cities with severely stretched funding, consider efficiency upgrades. We wrote about South Bend, IN’s investment in ‘smart sewers’ here.
  • Learn more about protecting your public water system from privatization, which risks the financial wellbeing of your community’s infrastructure.

Ready to get started?

Our second Water Affordability Academy will kick off next month, and we’re looking for cities to join us! This 5-week, interactive cohort is designed for water utility leaders excited about water affordability and customer assistance programs. Learn more and register here.

After our first cohort of the Academy, we launched our Water Community of Practice. The CoP meets semimonthly, with an event next week featuring Kishia Powell of DC Water.

Read our reports highlighting how cities can support their public water systems, including Setting the Agenda, a report focused on how mayors can make safe drinking water their priority – and their legacy.