HHS Releases Water Assistance Guidance and Survey – Utility Responses Needed by April 27!
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released additional information April 19 regarding implementation of the $1.138 Billion provided by Congress in December 2020 and March 2021 for emergency low-income household water and wastewater assistance (LIHWAP).
HHS also held a listening session for stakeholders on April 20, with presentation slides that are available here, and released a survey for which responses are due next Tuesday, April 27th that we urge all utilities to consider completing.
The guidance released included two documents that grantees – states, territories, and tribes – will need to complete and get approved before funds are available for customer assistance. These include Terms and Conditions and a Draft Work Plan, both available here. While these documents are aimed at the states, they are worth reviewing by utilities interested in understanding how the program will work and ensuring some of these funds flow to address their utility’s customer arrearages.
HHS survey has a very quick turnaround date of Tuesday, April 27 for input on the survey. Available here, the survey is open to any interested stakeholders with the purpose of obtaining input on the program and the draft work plan which states will consider in developing their implementation plan.
NACWA will submit a response on behalf of the Association and strongly encourages each member utility to consider completing the survey. We anticipate HHS may receive a large number of responses from various stakeholders, so it is important that utility voices and perspectives are heard. NACWA would appreciate if utility submissions or comments are also are shared with the Association to help inform our ongoing advocacy. Please share any input you provide to the survey with Kristina Surfus.
In the documents and this week’s listening session, HHS provided key updates on when and how funds will flow. The program’s funding is aimed at reducing arrearages from low-income households, which have grown substantially during the pandemic, and maintaining continuity of water services. HHS is aiming that funds will be available to grantees (states/tribes/territories) by the end of May. These funds will go out under a formula, but exact dollar amounts by state are not yet public given that a small number of states and tribes still need to certify their intent to participate. The funds can be expended – that is, released to water and wastewater utilities and credited to eligible customer arrears – through December 2023.
The materials released this week are aimed at the first of two tranches of funding – the initial $638 million signed into law in December. Similar procedures will likely be subsequently used for the second tranche of $500 million that was signed into law in March. The timing of the release of the second tranche is not yet known, and guidance may be updated between the two tranches.
As implementation gets underway, HHS’ primary role will be working with the direct grantees – states, territories and tribes – whose role will be to implement the program working with utilities, customers, and third-party partners such as local community agencies. As such, utilities’ and communities’ best opportunity to inform their program’s development is likely through their state LIHWAP implementing office and through the development of the state work plan.
Each state will need to determine details including application materials, eligibility determination procedures, and processes for payments. For example, grantees are being encouraged to leverage the existing third-party Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) network in order to get dollars distributed locally on behalf of eligible customers, but those processes will be up to the state to outline in its work plan.
NACWA continues to encourage all interested utilities to connect with their state LIHEAP office which will likely be working hard to get this new funding stream set up in the coming weeks and months. NACWA staff recently spoke to the national organization representing the state LIHEAP administrators (NEADA) during their spring conference to discuss the unique nature of the water sector relative to energy, the need for water assistance, and existing utility customer assistance programs.
While much remains to be determined, NACWA is glad to see this funding implementation moving forward. We appreciate HHS’ consideration of NACWA’s input to date and look forward to continued collaboration to help ensure this funding is implemented as efficiently and effectively as possible.
To discuss the program or share input please contact Kristina Surfus, NACWA’s Managing Director of Government Affairs.