Water Affordability in DC & Atlanta

With our partners at the Water Center at Penn, we are shining a critical spotlight on the local leaders who are forging the path on water affordability. Joining us at our Community of Practice in February was Kishia Powell, Chief Operating Officer and Executive Vice President at DC Water. Learn more about how we’re supporting city leaders through our Water Affordability program here.

Are you a mayor new to this issue? Start here with Setting the Agenda: A Mayor’s Guide to Water Affordability.

With experience in watershed management and water affordability from Jackson, MS to Washington DC, Kishia Powell had a wealth of wisdom and knowledge to share at last month’s Water Community of Practice. Powell joined DC Water in May 2020 and under her leadership, DC Water has advanced efforts to ensure access to clean, affordable water during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

But despite her extensive professional accomplishments, she’s motivated by personal experience. Though the city of Baltimore had a senior citizen water discount program at the time, Powell’s grandmother lost her home because of water non-payment; despite being age qualified, her fixed income was greater than the discount program’s guidelines. 

“That was a clear indication to me that we need to do more as a sector to support those customers who really really want to pay their bills,” Powell says, “but they need assistance and they need programs that work for them instead of the one size fits all that really doesn’t help the most impacted in our communities.”

Water affordability efforts often center on Customer Assistance Programs (CAP) and responsibly managing water infrastructure and the expenses that management entails. To assess whether your city or utility is in need of affordability programs – or updates to its existing affordability program – Powell said it’s necessary to consider whether your water rates are encroaching on affordability targets. Citywide Median Household Income, long a staple of affordability programs, is an unreliable indicator. A modern affordability program requires more microanalysis, looking at the distribution of poverty by neighborhood or zip code. Another good indicator is how your CAP eligibility rate compares to the rates of similar programs like SNAP and LIHEAP. If not, you likely need to work on refining your affordability criteria and increase CAP signup. 

Customer Assistance Programs in DC

In DC, Powell helped launch their newest CAP program, designed to assist indirect customers – those who rent in multifamily buildings and do not have an existing account with DC Water – with the cost of their water bills. The innovative program provides up to $2,000 in relief to eligible tenants, and so far has helped hundreds of families secure safe, affordable water since it launched in February 2021.

Infrastructure Management in Atlanta

The other side of affordability is infrastructure management. In Atlanta, they worked to take the burden of paying for water infrastructure off rate payers by imposing a municipal sales tax. The sales tax capitalizes on the huge influx of people who come into the city each day and use its infrastructure by charging a $1 sales tax on goods and services in the city. Thanks to the sales tax, the city has been able to meet its revenue targets without raising rates in more than 8 years. Another key strategy is through reducing operating costs through operational efficiency and investments in smart utility infrastructure. 

However, all the smart systems in the world won’t save you from the basics; cities still need to work to better understand and invest in their existing infrastructure. In Atlanta, Powell says, they found that they were spending a lot of money on bypass pumping, in some cases for years, and made a concerted effort to fix those sites to eliminate such . Also in Atlanta, a substantial investment at a treatment plant allowed them to create a pelletized fertilizer that could reduce chemical treatment costs. 

Learn more about the Community of Practice and our Water Affordability program here.