Emergency Low-Income Water Aid Expected to Reach States in May; NACWA Provides Input
Since $638M in the first-ever low-income water customer assistance was signed into law in December – followed by a second tranche of $500M provided in March – utilities have been waiting for the funding to start flowing to help customers in need. NACWA has been in conversation with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) staff standing up the new program, dubbed the Low Income Household Water Assistance Program, or LIHWAP, and offering recommendations, but limited details had been released by the agency until recently.
Thankfully, we have seen notable progress over the past week, with HHS releasing key documents for states and tribes – who will receive the funds to then distribute – and holding a stakeholder web presentation. The materials released include funding terms and conditions that were due back from each state and tribe by April 27th.
A draft work plan, which states and tribes will soon need to modify and complete as they design their own implementation plan, was also released along with a survey comment period. Through the survey, NACWA provided feedback on key points including emphasizing that many utilities have significant experience implementing local assistance programs that states should leverage and mirror in order to efficiently get the dollars out on behalf of households, as well as to minimize and reimburse administrative burdens on utilities.
Director of HHS’ Division of Energy Assistance Lauren Christopher, who is currently leading the LIHWAP effort, also spoke during the Water Week National Water Policy Zoom-In on April 27th to outline her agency’s progress on this funding.
HHS is closely implementing LIHWAP along the lines of the longstanding Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, LIHEAP, including planning to leverage the existing LIHEAP network of community action agencies operating throughout the country. As previously noted, NACWA encourages all utilities to position themselves for these funds by identifying their state agency charged with implementing the program and the local community action agencies operating in their utility service area.
The funds will be granted from HHS to states and tribes, and then administered to utilities in many cases through third-party entities like local community action agencies. The funds available through this program are to be used for both water and wastewater services, prioritizing maintaining access to service and reducing customer arrears. Funds will flow to the utility to be credited to customer accounts.
HHS is aiming to get funds out to states by the end of May, and each state has significant work to do developing their programmatic work plan – meaning now is the time to reach out to your state LIHEAP agency if you would like to engage as the state determines key features of its program.
While this funding is just getting out the door, customer assistance needs are clearly not going away, nor will they be fully addressed by the $1.1 B provided to date in response to the pandemic. NACWA continues to urge that a permanent, reliable assistance program be established.
Just this week, the Senate is passing legislation that would advance this effort at US EPA as part of a water infrastructure bill package (see related story). Given the ongoing high water bill arrearages remaining from the pandemic, it is also possible additional funds could be sent through HHS in the future. NACWA continues working closely to both support implementation of this current funding and urge a permanent program be established.
Contact Kristina Surfus, NACWA Managing Director, Government Affairs to discuss.