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Facing criticism over its flow-restrictor program, CFPUA tries to balance equity and revenue

Benjamin Schachtman
CFPUA has faced criticism for a plan to restrict water, but not shutoff service, to delinquent customers.

The Cape Fear Public Utility Authority is delaying a pilot program to restrict water flow to residential customers with delinquent accounts. CFPUA is one of the first in the nation to consider this type of program and, while it’s based on a very simple piece of technology, the issue driving it is much more complicated.


In the fall, CFPUA first announced a pilot program that would experiment with flow restrictors --- a quarter-shaped device with a small hole in the center that reduces water flow by roughly 90 percent or more. The reduced flow means filling a glass of water would take about 12 seconds, and taking a shower or running a washing machine would be difficult, although not impossible.

CFPUA initially planned to install these devices on a small number of households whose water bill was significantly delinquent and where other attempts to negotiate payment plans hadn’t worked.

The plan drew criticism, including phone calls, emails, speakers at this month’s CFPUA Board meeting, and a letter from State Representative Deb Butler (you can find that letter at the end of this article). Some critics, including Butler, expressed concerns about rolling out the plan during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“I understand that they are trying to adhere to their fiduciary responsibilities. But we're in a pandemic, and now is just simply not the time --- there's a reason no one else in the country with the exception of maybe one city out west somewhere is doing this. It's particularly unkind right now, I think," Butler said in an interivew.

Clair Williamson is an energy policy advocate for the North Carolina Justice Center who spoke at the CFPUA board meeting.

“Restricting water and doing this to one person is wrong. Doing this to 10 people in a pilot program is worse. And Heaven forbid that you implement this policy to all your customers.”


(You can find other speakers at the beginning of the Dec. 7 meeting, archived here. Disclosure note: One of the speakers was Andre Brown, an attorney for Legal Aid of North Carolina's Wilmington Office, who is also a WHQR board member.)

CFPUA’s decision to delay the pilot program by 60 days, until March, may help address some concerns about restricting water flow during the pandemic. According to Public Information Officer Vaughn Hagerty, it will also give the authority time to consider other aspects of the program, including whether 90% restriction is too much.

“We did receive what I saw was some really great feedback from folks who spoke at our board meeting last week. And there were others who sent emails and letters. And so I mean, we're going to be taking a closer look at a number of aspects of the pilot program over the next couple of months.”

CFPUA says the program is fundamentally about getting customers to contact the authority to work out a payment plan.

“This isn't meant as a punitive measure. It's sort of a last resort. absolute last resort attempt, after several attempts to contact the customer have failed.”

It’s worth noting that CFPUA has will continue to suspend shutoffs and late fees for residential customers until mid-March of next year while it works on alternatives; elsewhere in the region, H2GO has also maintained a self-imposed moratorium, but both Brunswick and Pender county’s water utilities resumed shutoffs after Governor Roy Cooper’s protections expired at the end of July.

Avoiding --- or rather, reversing --- shutoffs during the pandemic was actually the original inspiration for a program in Phoenix, Arizona, which was the model for CFPUA’s plan. Jim Swanson, a deputy director for the city’s water services department explains that when the pandemic hit, the city had 600 households shut off due to non-payment.

“The decision was to turn them back on right to provide them water. However, the decision was also made to provide water at a restricted flow that would be acceptable for or adequate for drinking, or cooking and for sanitary purposes.” 


Related: More on the Phoenix flow-restrictor program from WBUR Boston here.


Both Swanson and CFPUA say that, while many are watching to see how the plans evolve, they haven’t heard of other utilities using flow restrictors. (Note: The City of Toledo, Ohio was mentioned as one other city considered restrictors by Williamson at the CFPUA Board meeting. According to Toledo Communications Director Ignazio Messina, the city decided to hold on the program after discovering the restrictors caused difficulty pushing water to second stories. A city contractor is working on the issue, Messina said; she did not mention any public push-back.)



So, if they do offer a more humane alternative to shutoffs, why aren’t they more common? 

For CFPUA it’s because the idea is relatively new, but for critics it’s because it’s problematic, even if it is preferable to a complete shutoff.

The optics of throttling a family’s water supply --- even in non-pandemic times --- aren’t great. But, at the same time, utilities also need revenue. Currently, CFPUA has over $2.7 million in delinquent bills. 

State statute limits CFPUA’s ability to lower rates or forgive unpaid bills for low-income families. Despite the unprecedented conditions caused by the pandemic, Representative Deb Butler said she hadn’t heard any conversation in Raleigh about changing those laws --- but there is at least one other avenue to support at-risk families.

Recently, CFPUA and New Hanover County helped stand up WATERWay NC, an independent non-profit, to provide utility assistance to households struggling with their bills. While it’s not a complete solution, CFPUA does plan to increase efforts to promote this non-profit in the coming months. 


More about WATERWay NC, including ways to donate, here and here. For those looking to set up a payment plan, you can reach CFPUA at 910-332-6550.



You can reach Ben Schachtman at BSchachtman@WHQR.org and find him on Twitter @Ben_Schachtman


Letter from NC Rep. Deb Butler to CFPUA by Ben Schachtman on Scribd