Ensuring Water Conservation and Efficiency Programs Are Accessible to All—In California and Beyond

Ensuring Water Conservation and Efficiency Programs Are Accessible to All—In California and Beyond

Ensuring Water Conservation and Efficiency Programs Are Accessible to All—In California and Beyond

Morgan Shimabuku, Pacific Institute Senior Researcher 
Jessi Snyder, Self-Help Enterprises Director of Community Development 

Key Takeaways: 

  • Ensuring water conservation and efficiency programs are accessible is a challenge worth tackling to save water and money, especially for households and communities that need it most. 
  • Funding these programs can be a challenge. This blog looks at state and federal opportunities, with a focus on California, where the legislature is considering a $200 million budget item for two low-income, direct-install water conservation programs. 
  • There are several barriers to implementing water conservation and efficiency programs that are accessible to everyone. But there are already many creative solutions to overcoming these barriers to create access for people of all incomes. 

Californians and others in the Western United States need to save water. This is true now amidst a historic megadrought, and it will continue to be true when this drought ends.  

But many water conservation and efficiency programs aren’t accessible to low-income households. This is in a nation where, in 2020, 18.4% of households earned less than $25,000 per year, which is just under the federal poverty level for a household of four people. Research has shown that hard-to-reach groups, such as renters or low-income families, are less likely to participate in these programs.  

This challenge is worth tackling. Making such programs more widely accessible would both help those struggling to afford their utility bills and save water. Notably, these water savings would occur immediately and into the future, helping provide immediate relief for households, as well as building long-term water resilience and contributing to system-wide affordability. 

The challenge: Multiple barriers to water conservation and efficiency programs 

There are several barriers to ensuring water conservation and efficiency programs are accessible to all. These include: 

  • Not designed for limited-income customers: First, some utilities have strong conservation and efficiency offerings, but these programs are not readily available to customers with low to no income. As an example, rebate programs require participants to purchase new, efficient devices and then wait weeks to months before being partially reimbursed or given a credit on their utility bill. For those with limited income, bearing the cost upfront is not always possible and is a deterrent to participation. 
  • Narrow eligibility requirements limit participation: A second type of barrier exists when utilities have low-income-specific efficiency programs, but they have narrow or burdensome eligibility requirements that limit participation. Renters and people living in multifamily housing are more likely to have lower incomes than those living in single family housing. Yet, many programs are not available to people in multifamily housing, in part because they often do not pay their water bill directly. Also, onerous proof-of-income requirements can create barriers to participation in these programs.  
  • Lack of capacity to offer programs: A third type of barrier, common for customers of small water systems, is that some water utilities lack capacity and resources needed to offer any water conservation and efficiency programs. This challenge is most apparent in rural communities, but also can be found in small urban systems.  
  • Trust and cultural barriers: Finally, trust and cultural barriers may exist for some customer groups, especially those that have been historically marginalized or left out of conservation and efficiency efforts. 

Good news: Solutions exist  

The good news is that there are creative solutions to overcome these barriers. These include: 

  • Vouchers replacing rebates: Water utilities already offering conservation and efficiency programs can design them to be more accessible. For instance, instead of offering rebates for efficient device purchases, utilities can provide vouchers at the point of sale. This change would eliminate the need for a reimbursement process, identified as a major barrier to implementation.  
  • Device giveaways and direct-install programs: Another option is to offer fixtures and appliances at no cost for qualified households through device giveaways or direct-install programs. Long Beach Water in Southern California, for example, is piloting a direct-install sustainable landscape program for homeowners living in low-income designated census tracts. Elsewhere in California, the City of Sacramento also offers a free leak-detection audit program that includes free device installations for low-income, single-family households in designated disadvantaged communities. Notably, this program is only offered to homeowners of single-family dwellings. As a result, it remains inaccessible to renters and those living in multi-family housing.  
  • Multi-family housing solutions: While there are several challenges to delivering conservation and efficiency programs to renters and people living in multi-family housing, some utilities are exploring new models related to housing affordability more broadly, adding in the conservation and efficiency benefits. In New York City, for example, the Department of Environmental Protection includes water conservation and efficiency as an eligibility criterion for receiving the Multi-Family Water Assistance Program credit. Housing projects must, among other requirements, prove the average rent is affordable to households earning up to 60% of area median income, the property has been part of certified affordable housing efforts for a minimum of 15 years, all buildings have automated meters, and high-efficiency fixtures are installed in at least 70% of units. These requirements incentivize efficiency improvements and long-term affordable housing in New York City. 
  • Alternative proof of eligibility: To reduce barriers created by proof-of-income, water utilities can accept proof of participation in existing low-income programs such as CARES, Medi-Cal, or others. There is also the option to allow for self-verification of income qualification, with annual audits of a subset of participants to assess validity. A third approach, already in use by Long Beach Water and City of Sacramento, is to create eligibility based on geographic location of a household in a community identified as disadvantaged or low-income through state or federal surveys.   
  • Partnerships with related programs. Another solution that can help reduce multiple barriers to these programs is through partnership with existing organizations already delivering low-income direct-install programs. Partnering with energy conservation organizations, as some water utilities already do, is an effective opportunity to piggy-back on the existing program infrastructure and circumvent the challenging process of income qualification. This can be especially helpful for small water systems with limited capacity for offering their own programs. Energy utilities regulated by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) are required to offer their low-income customers an energy efficiency direct-install program, called the Energy Saving Assistance Program (ESAP). ESAP has delivered energy efficiency upgrades at no cost to nearly 2 million income-qualified households since 2015.1 In some places, these upgrades include water-saving devices as well, although device offerings have been limited. Partners, particularly community-based organizations (CBOs), also offer trust-building opportunities. These opportunities can improve customer communication and recruitment. The Building Blocks of Trust by the River Network and WaterNow Alliance offer key components of successful utility and CBO partnerships.  

Funding opportunities from state and federal governments 

Securing funding for these programs can be challenging, but there are both federal and state funds that may help. From the federal government, funding through state-led Clean Water State Revolving Funds are eligible to provide loans and grants for water efficiency projects 

Some states are making efforts to address the challenge as well. In California, the legislature is considering up to $200 million to fund water efficiency assistance for low-income households. Advocates are proposing to split this funding in two ways. First, $150 million could supplement the energy utility ESAP, growing the program’s water conservation offerings to include, whenever possible, high-efficiency toilets and clothes washers. The other $50 million could fund a complementary grant program at the Department of Water Resources for new direct-install water efficiency programs for low-income households. Advocates estimate these programs could save the state billions of gallons of water per year and save the participating households tens of millions of dollars per year on their water and wastewater bills.  

The power to act 

With water utilities, energy utilities, CBOs, and state and federal agencies all on board, we can create opportunities for everyone to help save water in California and beyond. This will benefit not only the individuals themselves, but also their communities, utilities, and ecosystems. Amid the water crisis, exacerbated by climate change, we must forge these—and other—new solutions to stretch scarce water resources to meet the needs of all water users. 

Self-Help Enterprises is a nationally recognized community development organization whose mission is to work together with low-income families to build and sustain healthy homes and communities. Since 1965, Self-Help Enterprises’ efforts have touched the lives of over 55,000 families. 

¹ESAP statistics provided to Pacific Institute from Ed Osann (NRDC), obtained 4/21/2022 from K. Kulkarni, Senior Regulatory Analyst (CPUC), via email from CPUC. 


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