Water is Life: Spotlighting OCS’ New Emergency Water Assistance Program

March 23, 2021
| Dr. Lanikque Howard, Director, Office of Community Services
girl drinking a glass of clear water outdoors

The value of water is about much more than its price. Water is essential to life, and access to clean drinking water should be a human right. Yet even in 2021, there are still some areas in the U.S. and many areas around the world where access to clean, safe water is limited or nonexistent.

In the United States, many are used to water running freely from taps and faucets, but this water is not free, and water costs are on the rise. For many low-income households in America, water affordability has reached a level of crisis. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, studies indicated that some low-income households were paying between 4—19 percent of their monthly household income on drinking water and wastewater services Visit disclaimer page (PDF). With millions of individuals suffering from job loss, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated America’s growing water affordability crisis, effectively increasing the percentage of monthly income that many households are paying for water. This comes as the COVID-19 pandemic emphasizes the importance of access to clean water to maintain personal hygiene and health.

As individuals and families struggle to pay bills during the pandemic, they often have to make difficult trade-offs between paying for one necessity or another. As a current resident of California, where approximately one in eight households cannot afford to pay their water bill Visit disclaimer page (PDF), it pains me that families are forced to choose between paying for water services and other necessities like housing, food, and medicine. And, as a person of color, it weighs on me that low-income communities of color are disproportionately affected by water debt and shutoffs, just as they have been disproportionally impacted by job loss and poor health outcomes related to the coronavirus Visit disclaimer page.

For these reasons and more, I am excited and grateful that Congress has recognized and responded to the need to help low-income households with water and wastewater access and payments.

The Low-Income Household Water Assistance Program

On December 27, 2020, The Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021 was signed into law. This law includes $638 million in emergency funding to assist low-income households with water and wastewater bills. Then, as part of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, Congress appropriated an additional $500 million to support water accessibility for low-income households, increasing funding for water assistance to over $ 1.1 billion.

Water assistance will be provided through the new Low-Income Household Water Assistance Program (LIHWAP). This new program will award grants to States, Territories, and eligible Native American Tribes to assist low-income households, particularly those with the lowest incomes and that pay a high proportion of household income for drinking water and wastewater services, by providing funds to owners or operators of public water systems or treatment works to reduce arrearages of and rates charged to low income households for water and wastewater services.

Grants will be issued and administered by the Administration for Children and Families’ (ACF), Office of Community Services (OCS), which administers the Low Income Household Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) and other programs designed to reduce the causes of poverty, increase opportunity and economic security of individuals and families, and revitalize communities.

Because LIHWAP is a new program, OCS must design a program that is responsive to the legislative intent. As such, OCS is reviewing existing programs to identify processes and procedures that support and align with the Congressional intent of LIHWAP.

OCS is working diligently to stand up the new program as quickly as possible, while also working to ensure it is an effective and efficient program. The OCS team is incredibly excited for the opportunity to support low-income households in maintaining access to water and wastewater services, and we could not think of a better day to make our first announcement about LIHWAP than the 2021 World Water Day.

I hope that you will take some time to visit our LIHWAP webpage. We will update this page with more information in the weeks and months to come.


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