AWWA Articles

San Antonio water conservation programs ease strain on low-income households

For a family living in poverty, a pipe leak can create an unbearable financial burden.

During the worst weeks, some customers resort to actions that at first shocked employees at San Antonio Water System (SAWS): They shut off water to their house, turn it back on briefly to fill buckets and take showers, and then shut it off again.

“That’s just not a way to live,” said Karen Guz (pictured right), SAWS conservation director. “Sometimes it’s a senior living alone who’s struggling. They’ve turned off the water and they’ve Karen Guz with SAWSgone without hot water for a time. They don’t realize there’s a way to get help.”

SAWS has developed a suite of programs, called Uplift, designed to help economically disadvantaged customers conserve water and keep their bills manageable. One of Uplift’s oldest and most popular programs is called Plumbers to People, in which people living at 125 percent of the federal poverty level can have leaks repaired for free by plumbers contracted through the utility.
“We’d rather intercept those leaks before they become catastrophically large and damage the house or end with a bill that the owners can’t pay,” said Guz, who presented an overview of SAWS Uplift programs at the American Water Works Association’s 2019 Sustainable Water Management conference.

In addition to Plumbers to People, there are 13 other initiatives in Uplift, including:

•    Affordability Discount, which can reduce a customer’s water bill by $4.15 to $25.75 per month, depending on household size, income and type of service.
•    Senior Citizen Billing, which waives late payment penalties for customers age 60 and older.
•    Laterals to People, which helps residential customers repair the sewer lateral from outside their home to the property line.
•    Project Agua, which provides emergency payment assistance up to two times a year.

SAWS employee educates a customer about Uplift programs.Ten SAWS employees develop, manage and deploy Uplift programs, and a big part of their job is identifying households that might qualify for assistance. More than 31,000 families are enrolled in the Affordability Discount program, roughly 7 percent of the utility’s residential customers, yet officials estimate twice as many may be eligible. (Pictured, a SAWS employee educates a customer about Uplift programs)  

“It’s harder than you’d think to engage with all of these households,” Guz said, noting other utilities have experienced similar participation rates. “If you’re surviving at this income level, you have challenges that are probably much larger than your water bill, and you may not have the time to learn about these programs.”

Moving forward, SAWS is streamlining its enrollment process to make it easier for families to get assistance they need. The team has an aggressive outreach program that connects its employees to potential participants where they reside ― at back-to-school nights, community centers, local food banks and churches. The Uplift team also is developing plans to help low-income renters locate water waste and relay the problem to their landlord, while reminding property owners that it’s against local law to allow ongoing leaks.

Guz suggests that utilities considering similar programs should approach it in three ways: Build affordability into their rate structure, develop discounts for those most in need,Uplift logo and create conservation programs specifically designed for economically disadvantaged households.  

Sasha Kodet, a planner with SAWS, said other utilities are eager to share information about what works and what doesn’t with these kinds of programs. “One of the most valuable parts of water conferences is building a collaborative network among people across the country,” she said.

Guz agreed, saying the hardest part about implementing these initiatives is getting started because the administrative processes are challenging at first. “We’ve had to think through all of these programs very carefully,” she said. “We’ve crafted and adjusted them over time. But once they get started and get rolling, they’re very manageable.”

Nationwide, 12 percent of single-family water use is wasted on preventable leaks. Implementing a conservation program for people in poverty is a crucial step toward cutting down on that statistic while easing an unnecessary burden for low-income families.

And, Guz said, it’s the right thing to do.

“We have a moral obligation in our conservation programs to work with everybody,” she said. “We work with all types of customers: HOAs, businesses and multifamily households; this is a significant portion of our customers. We want our entire community to use water efficiently.”

Interested in setting up similar initiatives for your community? Contact Greg Wukasch, manager of external relations at San Antonio Water System. Learn about other innovative conservation programs at AWWA’s 2020 Sustainable Water Management Conference. More resources are available on AWWA’s Affordability Resource page.