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Water drop image courtesy of Bureau of Ocean Energy and Management

Water affordability study approved by WA Legislature

Puget Sound residents struggling to pay high water utility fees could benefit from a study funded this month by the Washington Legislature. The legislation coincides with research sponsored by the Puget Sound Institute that quantifies wastewater utility costs for the region.

The funding for the study is part of Senate Bill 5950, omnibus legislation passed on March 7th that amends the state’s 2023-25 operating budget. Governor Jay Inslee has until March 30th to sign the bill into law. If approved, the proposed water rates study will examine the need for a statewide low-income assistance program to offset household drinking water and sewer costs. [Update: The legislation was signed by Governor Inslee on Friday, March 29th.]

Informing the legislation is PSI-sponsored research that quantifies wastewater utility costs for Puget Sound area residents. That study, conducted last year in collaboration with the ECO Resource Group and Western Washington University, found that some low-income residents were paying a disproportionately high percentage of their household income — as much as 10% — for their sewer bills.

Sewage treatment plant in Bremerton, WA. Photo: Washington Department of Ecology

With Puget Sound’s relatively high wastewater utility costs in mind, the newly funded study will examine household drinking water and wastewater fees across the state.

The budget request was spearheaded by representatives from Seattle and Tacoma Public Utilities along with a coalition of city and county utilities, non-profits, and other groups which signed a letter of support. The University of Washington Tacoma also signed the letter.

“Water and sewer are essential basic human services, and everyone deserves access,” said Maggie Yuse, a senior policy advisor at Seattle Public Utilities and a co-advocate of the legislation. “People are struggling to pay their bills and we are looking for ways to support our low-income customers.”

The legislation provides $300,000 to the State Department of Health with input from the Department of Commerce to assess the need for and feasibility of a statewide low-income assistance program for water utility customers. The study will also look at customer cost burdens while gathering detailed data on water-related assistance needs. Findings from the analysis will be submitted to the Legislature by June 30, 2025.

The proposed study comes at a time when low-income residents are especially vulnerable to high utility costs. During the Covid pandemic, unpaid bills among water customers “really skyrocketed,” said Yuse. The state addressed the problem in the 2022 legislative session by appropriating $100 million for water and energy utilities to pay down outstanding balances on low-income customer’s accounts. In addition, the federal government started the temporary Low Income Household Water Assistance Program, or LIHWAP. The program was meant to help customers who were in imminent danger of having their water services disconnected. That funding expired at the end of 2023 and the new study will look at those needs and how to address them.

Currently no state or federal dollars are used to assist low-income customers with their water utility bills, Yuse said.

“We would love to see the LIHWAP program extended,” said Yuse. “People are working on extending it, but in the meantime, we want to see parity with energy assistance programs for water utilities. We don’t want our low-income customers to get left behind on the water side.”

Cost of sewer service as a percentage of household income for 80 utilities. Costs are based on 2022 rates. LQI stands for “Lowest Quintile Income.” MHI stands for “Median Household Income.” Source: Puget Sound Institute.

Concerns over the affordability of water bills are especially high in the Puget Sound region where residents face some of the most expensive water utility costs in the nation. Low-income residents in particular face the greatest hardships, according to the 2023 PSI-sponsored study. It found that Puget Sound residents in the lower 20% of household incomes pay an average of 4.38% of their total budgets on sewer bills with some paying as high as 10%. By comparison, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that most U.S. households spend an average of 10.3% of their disposable income on food.

The budget proviso was submitted into the legislation by Representative Emily Alvarado of the 34th Legislative District and Senator Noel Frame of the 36th Legislative District. Senate Bill 5950 is sponsored by State Senators June Robinson of the 38th Legislative District, T’wina Nobles of the 28th Legislative District, and Yasmin Trudeau of the 27th Legislative District. The water utility rate legislation matches a similar proviso for electrical utility rates that was passed into law in Washington last year.