By Erica DePalma, Program Manager

June 3, 2024

When it comes to addressing increasingly unaffordable water bills, contaminates of concern, and aging water systems, bold leadership and collective action are key. In the face of this urgent challenge, the US Water Alliance convened a One Water Leadership Institute (alongside co-hosts Louisville Metropolitan Sewer District (MSD) and Louisville Water) on balancing customers’ ability to pay with utility financial resilience, bringing together over 30 water sector leaders from across the country. The Institute provided a space for utility executives and staff, community leaders and organizations, consultants, and financial experts to gather and discuss how One Water can unlock holistic, impactful solutions to the complex community and utility challenge of water affordability.

Discussion indoors at conference

Louisville Leaders Shared their Water Affordability Journey

We grounded conversations in the story of Louisville, KY, and hosted the event at the Norton Healthcare Sports and Learning Center—a $54 million project made possible by a One Water partnership between the Louisville Urban League, Louisville MSD, and Louisville Water in an area of the city that had long been neglected and disinvested in. In this space, Louisville leaders shared their multi-pronged, evolving strategy to advocate for permanent federal LIHWAP funding and actively generate economic opportunity and justice for their residents. Notably, Louisville leaders are leveraging modern and compassionate technologies that are achieving record-setting outcomes and busting myths and biases about those who struggle to pay their water bills. Louisville leaders shared how they harness the power of messaging and turned assistance into “Drops of Kindness.”

“We’re not a utility—we’re a lifeline to public health. We’re an anchor that you cannot replace. Until we value customer service, equity, and environmental justice programs as much as we value engineering and water quality, our sector will not have the success it needs.” – Kelley Dearing Smith, Vice President, Communications and Marketing, Louisville Water

Fundamental to Louisville’s story and essential to addressing affordability challenges across the country are strong utility and community partnerships. On this topic, attendees explored how strong utility and community partnerships can:

  • In combination with data, combat biases and stereotypes that can stall solutions.
  • Identify opportunities and solutions that are grounded in lived experiences of those most at risk of losing access or being forced into trade-offs with other essential needs.
  • Increase assistance utilization, create opportunities to provide wraparound support, reduce red tape, and build trust and awareness for programs offered.

“How many times does an individual have to prove to you that they’re poor? When we’re looking at partnerships, how [do we] remove barriers for individuals who already have so many to overcome?” – Sharise Horne, Chief of Equity and Community Partnerships, Louisville MSD

Tour in building

Learning about the Louisville Urban League Definition of Justice

Big swings are needed to address water affordability in the United States. Over the course of our two days together in Louisville, leaders in the room discussed how the greatest impact happens when utilities first understand what the water bill burdens in their communities look like at a granular level. Decision makers must look at what typical customers are paying for water and sewer services and how that corresponds with their income level. Leaders discussed the importance of the following action items:

  • Instead of using Median Household Income (MHI) as an indicator of affordability, look at bill impacts on a smaller subset of individuals in the lowest quintile (20th) income percentile and identify the percentage of their income they are using to pay for water and sewer bills to assess burden. For example, after a university-led research study was conducted, it was determined that a bill above 1.8% of household income in Detroit is considered a burden. Use this analysis to inform affordability strategies.
  • Leverage 21st-century technology to target, reach, and serve customers—especially those who otherwise wouldn’t ask for help.
  • Understand—because the data confirms it—that the majority of people want to pay their bills and pay off debt. While some fraud may occur, fraud outlier impacts are trivial compared to the benefit that strong assistance measures provide at a community level.
  • Explore creative and cost-justifiable options for setting rates and allocating costs. Get rid of payment plan deposits. Create new customer classifications, such as those enrolled in SNAP, and auto-enroll them into special rate tiers or other water assistance programs.

“I’ve been in this business for 35 years. We have to evolve with the times and change with our community. If you don’t have empathy and compassion, you’ll miss what needs to change. We’re good at building and designing things; but without empathy and compassion, we’ll be less effective than we would be otherwise.” – Tony Parrott, CEO, Louisville MSD

The Institute served as a reminder that the best problem-solving actions occur through partnerships and collaboration. Achieving utility financial resilience and ensuring water bills are affordable requires a One Water approach with strong utility and community partnerships.

Group photo Louisville Water Tower

Touring the Louisville Water Tower

Learn more from the water champions leading this work in Louisville: