Private Water Utilities: Actions Needed to Enhance Ownership Data

What GAO Found

Available information on private for-profit drinking water utilities shows that 14 publicly traded companies served customers in 33 states in 2019. However, the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) primary source of publicly available information on U.S. drinking water utilities—the Safe Drinking Water Information System (SDWIS)—contains ownership information that is limited by inaccuracies. EPA collects information in SDWIS from states but does not include definitions for utility ownership types in its data entry guidance. In addition, EPA takes actions to verify some of the data, but does not verify or correct ownership data. EPA and others use SDWIS for purposes such as analyzing Safe Drinking Water Act violations by type of utility ownership. Such analysis can help EPA and states build utility capacity to provide safe drinking water. By defining ownership types, and verifying and correcting the data in SDWIS, EPA could help ensure the data are accurate and reliable for users of the data and the public.

EPA provided over $500 million in Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (SRF) assistance to for-profit utilities for 226 projects to help ensure delivery of safe drinking water from January 2010 through June 2020. EPA’s Drinking Water SRF program, created under the Safe Drinking Water Act, provides grants to states for low- or no-interest loans or grants to drinking water utilities for infrastructure projects. The amount provided to for-profit water utilities is small, about 2 percent of the $26.5 billion provided overall from January 2010 through June 2020.

States That Provided Private For-Profit Utilities with Assistance from the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, since January 2010

Why GAO Did This Study

The roughly 50,000 drinking water utilities in the United States face steep costs—more than $470 billion over the next 20 years, according to EPA estimates—to repair and replace drinking water infrastructure. These costs are passed on to customers through water rates. States regulate the rates charged by privately owned water utilities. EPA has responsibilities to implement programs to further the health protection objectives of the Safe Drinking Water Act.

GAO was asked to review private for-profit drinking water utilities and rates. This report examines, among other things, (1) information available from EPA and other sources about the number and characteristics of private for-profit water utilities in the United States, and (2) Drinking Water SRF assistance provided to private for-profit water utilities. GAO reviewed EPA SDWIS data, Drinking Water SRF data, and Global Water Intelligence data, as well as EPA’s and others’ documents. GAO also interviewed EPA and water utility stakeholders.

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    It is an honor to speak here today, at what I know will be the first of many informative programs on the important topics of corporate enforcement and individual accountability.  This is an exciting time for the Antitrust Division, for many reasons, one of which is that just yesterday President Biden announced that he plans to nominate Jonathan Kanter as our Assistant Attorney General.  The Division’s career officials and staff—myself included—eagerly await his arrival and look forward to carrying out his priorities.  Of course, right now I can’t speak to what those priorities will be, and my remarks today should not be taken as an indication otherwise.  But I welcome the opportunity to reflect on the recent accomplishments of the Division’s Criminal Program, which I have now been leading for over three years, and shed some light on the principles underlying that work.
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  • Department of State Announces Online Publication of 2019 Digest of United States Practice in International Law
    In Crime Control and Security News
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  • Assistant Attorney General John C. Demers Delivers Remarks Announcing People’s Republic of China Related Arrests
    In Crime News
    Good morning.  Today, I’m joined by FBI Director Chris Wray and, remotely, by the  Acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, Seth DuCharme, to announce charges against eight individuals for acting as agents of the People’s Republic of China while taking part in an illegal Chinese law enforcement operation known as Fox Hunt here in the United States.  Five of these individuals were arrested across the country this morning.  The rest, we believe, are in China.
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  • Kosovo Travel Advisory
    In Travel
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  • Readout of Attorney General William P. Barr’s Visits to Chicago and Phoenix
    In Crime News
    This week, Attorney General William P. Barr traveled to Chicago, Illinois, and Phoenix, Arizona, to announce updates on Operation Legend and the results of Operation Crystal Shield, respectively.
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  • Canadian National Pleads Guilty to Human Smuggling Conspiracy
    In Crime News
    A Canadian national pleaded guilty today to conspiracy to bring aliens to the United States for private financial gain in connection with his role in a scheme to smuggle aliens from Sri Lanka through the Caribbean and into the United States.
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  • The United States and Saudi Arabia Advance Decades of Cooperation
    In Climate - Environment - Conservation
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  • Justice Department Settles with the Commissioner of the Revenue for Caroline County, Virginia to Resolve Disability Discrimination Complaint
    In Crime News
    The Justice Department today announced that it reached an agreement with the Commissioner of the Revenue for Caroline County, Virginia, in his official capacity (the “Commissioner”) to resolve the department’s lawsuit alleging disability discrimination in violation of Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
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  • Justice Department Announces the Opening of Nominations for the Fifth Annual Attorney General’s Award for Distinguished Service in Community Policing
    In Crime News
    U.S. Attorney General Merrick B. Garland today announced the Department of Justice is now accepting nominations for the Fifth Annual Attorney General’s Award for Distinguished Service in Community Policing. These awards represent part of the Department of Justice’s on-going commitment to support the nation’s law enforcement officers who put their lives on the line every day to keep our communities safe.
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  • Priority Open Recommendations: Department of the Treasury
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found In April 2020, GAO identified 31 priority recommendations for the Department of the Treasury. Since then, Treasury has implemented 14 of those recommendations by, among other things, developing a cybersecurity risk management strategy that includes key elements identified in federal guidance and by establishing a process for conducting an organization-wide cybersecurity risk assessment. In June 2021, GAO identified 4 additional priority recommendations for Treasury, bringing the total number to 21. These recommendations involve the following areas: Improving payment integrity Improving cybersecurity Improving information technology workforce planning Modernizing the U.S. financial regulatory system Improving federal financial management ( Evaluating the performance and effectiveness of tax expenditures Full implementation of these open recommendations could significantly improve Treasury's operations. Why GAO Did This Study Priority open recommendations are the GAO recommendations that warrant priority attention from heads of key departments or agencies because their implementation could save large amounts of money; improve congressional and/or executive branch decision-making on major issues; eliminate mismanagement, fraud, and abuse; or ensure that programs comply with laws and funds are legally spent, among other benefits. Since 2015 GAO has sent letters to selected agencies to highlight the importance of implementing such recommendations. For more information, contact Michelle Sager at (202) 512-6806 or sagerm@gao.gov.
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