OPINION: Staying afloat

Why equity in water bill assistance is no pipe dream

M. Susan Hardwick//May 22, 2023//

Glass of water
Glass of water

OPINION: Staying afloat

Why equity in water bill assistance is no pipe dream

M. Susan Hardwick//May 22, 2023//

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Susan Hardwick, executive vice president and CFO, American Water; board of directors, New Jersey Resources.
M. Susan Hardwick is president and CEO of American Water

Communities across the country are faced with remediating emerging contaminants in their water sources. Drought and climate effects necessitate robust system resiliency. And there is agreement on the need to remove lead service lines to our homes and businesses. So, the state of America’s aged and insufficient water and wastewater systems requires our undivided attention.

Urgent investment is underway, but at the same time, more Americans are struggling to pay their water and wastewater bills.

It’s been 40 years since Congress recognized that some U.S. households were struggling to stay warm in the winter or cool in the summer, forced to choose between providing their family with meals and medicine or keeping the lights on.

Development of a low-income household energy assistance program, otherwise known as LIHEAP, wove a stronger safety net for those Americans most in need. It also ensured that energy utilities could continue to invest in system upgrades, grid resiliency, and infrastructure renewal projects in a way that lessened the impact of such work on those who could least afford it.

I have spent 40 years in the utility industry, first at an energy company and now water, and I have seen first-hand what bill assistance can mean to a family – and the investment it enables.

The same customers who are eligible for LIHEAP assistance are struggling to pay their water and wastewater bill with no similar assistance programs in place. This situation means that customers may lose access to essential water and wastewater services. That cannot happen in the United States.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress recognized water and wastewater services could not be compromised by a customer’s inability to pay their bill. A temporary low-income household water assistance program, or LIHWAP, was created as a stop-gap measure, offering $1.1 billion to customers and households across the U.S.

While this funding meant that the most vulnerable in our communities could continue to drink, bathe and flush their toilets, it was a drop in the bucket when compared to the $12 billion in energy assistance distributed since the start of the pandemic. Access to water is the most essential service for public health and the dignity of the most vulnerable among us.

An equitable solution can’t be a pipe dream. This water assistance pilot program is drying up as it distributes the remainder of its short-term funding later this year, while low-income customers’ ability to pay is further stressed as investment needs can no longer be deferred.

An independent report commissioned by five water sector associations that represent a cross-section of the 315 million Americans who rely on community water systems found the annual need for a federal assistance program to range between $2.4 billion and $7.9 billion in order to balance affordability with the need to accelerate investments in our infrastructure. Collectively, we’re calling on Congress and the Biden-Harris Administration to:

  • Establish and fund a permanent federal low-income household water assistance program as quickly as possible;
  • Leverage the success of the pilot by establishing the permanent low-income program through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.


When so much divides us, Americans can agree that access to safe water and wastewater is worthy of investment. The recently released Value of Water index polling highlighted that 72% of voters support government programs to help low-income households pay their water bills and that a reliable supply of safe water is the number one issue on voters’ minds, more concerning than inflation, crime and the opioid crisis.

America’s water providers have a shared commitment to the customers and communities that depend on our ability to uphold the highest water quality and safety standards. Investments that preserve and protect our critical water and wastewater systems and shore up customers’ confidence when they turn on their tap will require billions of dollars in investment.

American Water alone is committed to spending over $30 billion on infrastructure investments over the next decade, making treatment plants more resilient and replacing aging pipes at a faster rate.

Based on demand for low-income energy assistance dollars, there is an immediate need to ensure water equity for the same customers. To keep these essential services flowing to small towns and major cities, a low-income water assistance program must be permanently and fully funded at a level that is commensurate with other utility services.

M. Susan Hardwick is president and CEO of American Water, the largest publicly JP traded water and wastewater utility in the United States.