This content originally appeared on The Water Center at Penn’s blog.

Making Ends Meet: A Workshop on Water Affordability was held on May 30th at the University of Pennsylvania. Presentations from the workshop can be found here. The event was supported by The Water Center at Penn, American Rivers, the Mayors Innovation Project and Clean Water for All.

Introductory Session: The Philadelphia Story

The introductory session told “The Philadelphia Story” of how too many low-income Philadelphia families were struggling to pay their water bills and how in response, Philadelphia water and community leaders came together to create an innovative income based tariff system to ensure affordable water for all Philadelphians. Led by Howard Neukrug, executive director of The Water Center at Penn, a panel including Debra McCarty, commissioner of the Philadelphia Water Department, Rob Ballinger, Community Legal Services and Sonny Popowsky, former consumer advocate of Pennsylvania, described how Philadelphia created the ground breaking income based water tariff system known as the Tiered Assistance Program (TAP).  

TAP came about due to significant input from multiple stakeholders, all of whom recognized the critical need to address the mounting water debt of low-income households. Bringing stakeholders together on a regular basis allowed participants to understand each other’s perspectives and find a solution that worked for all parties. Having dedicated public advocates to represent water customers was also essential. According to Debra McCarty, “the process matters as much as the final outcome.”

The Affordability Crisis

While the water crisis in Detroit, Michigan isn’t at the top of the mainstream news cycle anymore, the crisis continues to rage for many in the Detroit community. The first session of the Water Affordability Conference, titled “The Water Affordability Crisis”, demonstrated just how raw emotions still are in Detroit. Howard Neukrug, executive director of The Water Center at Penn kicked off what turned out to be a very powerful morning session by reminding the audience that, “There is so much more work that the water utility industry needs to do, along with communities, scientists, academicians and everyone else, to get us to the point where our utilities and cities are highly resilient and sustainable for the future. We are not there.” One of the essential steps to getting there, and the goal of the conference, is to come together to better understand what is needed to solve one of the most urgent US water problems, water affordability.

The discussion panel was moderated by Jessica Loya, national policy director for Green Latinos, and included Mustafa Ali, senior vice president of climate, environmental justice and community revitalization at the Hip Hop Caucus, Professor Emily Kutil, founding member of We The People of Detroit and Jerome Shabazz, executive director of the Overbrook Environmental Education Center in Philadelphia.

Mustafa Ali began the panel discussion with a startling statistic. Fourteen million families in the US are unable to pay for water. This inability to pay for water is not just an economic issue. Lack of affordable water degrades communities because of its cascading impacts that create a negative downward spiral that is difficult to stop. Emily Kutil provided an illustration of this spiral from Detroit where lack of affordable water creates water shut off, resulting in less hygienic living conditions and a 155% increase in skin, soft tissue and gastrointestinal infections which leads to more emergency room visits versus the general population.

Creating Stormwater Fees

Stormwater fees are increasingly being used to address runoff.  Moderator Gary Belan of American Rivers led a panel including Adam Ortiz, director for the Department of the Environment, Prince George’s County, Maryland, Rick Gray, former mayor of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Alicia Smith, from The Junction Coalition in Toledo, Ohio, Darryl Haddock, environmental education director of the Western Atlanta Watershed Alliance and Andy Kricun, executive director and chief engineer at Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority (CCMUA) to discuss what these leaders are doing to keep stormwater fees fair and affordable in their communities.

Central to every panelist’s strategy was engaging the community.  As Alicia Smith stated, “It’s about how you do the work and who you do the work with.” But there are a lot of steps to community engagement. One of the first is listening. Adam Ortiz described the challenges he faced while trying to meet the EPA’s Clean Water mandate by replacing impervious with pervious surfaces. He described his first attempt at working with churches (due to their large impervious asphalt parking lots) as a failure and explained that some of his initial assumptions about the churches turned out to be wrong. Thanks to persistence and determination, he and church representatives eventually “learned how to hear each other,” understood the other side’s story and built trust. “It’s not over after one meeting or even 20 meetings,” Adam said.  But it was worth the effort as more and more churches came on board with the necessary.

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