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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    Many states use flexibilities in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), as amended, in identifying low-performing schools and student subgroups (e.g., students from major racial and ethnic groups and low-income students) that need support and improvement. For example, states must identify all public high schools failing to graduate at least one-third of their students. According to GAO's state plan analysis, four states used ESEA's flexibilities to set higher graduation rates (i.e., 70-86 percent) for purposes of state accountability. Similarly, while ESEA requires states to identify schools in which students in certain subgroups are consistently underperforming, 12 states assess the performance of additional student subgroups. Although states are generally required to set aside a portion of their federal education funding for school improvement activities (see figure), states have some discretion in how they allocate these funds to school districts. According to GAO's survey, 27 states use a formula to allocate funds. GAO also found that in at least 34 states, all school districts that applied for federal funds received them in school year 2018-2019, but states had discretion regarding which schools within those districts to fund and at what level. Funding for School Improvement through the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) Title I, Part A Note: For more details, see figure 2 in GAO-21-199. A majority of the 50 states and the District of Columbia responding to our survey reported having at least moderate capacity to support school districts' school improvement activities. Education provides various types of technical assistance to build local and state capacity such as webinars, in-person training, guidance, and peer networks. About one-half of states responding to GAO's survey sought at least one type of technical assistance from Education's program office and various initiatives, and almost all of those found it helpful. For example, Education's Regional Educational Laboratories (REL) help states use data and evidence, access high-quality research to inform decisions, identify opportunities to conduct original research, and track progress over time using high-quality data and methods. Several states most commonly reported finding the following assistance by RELs to be helpful: in-person training (26), webinars (28), and reviews of existing research studies to help select interventions (24). The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) requires states to have statewide accountability systems to help provide all children significant opportunity to receive a fair, equitable, and high-quality education, and to close educational achievement gaps high-quality education. These systems must meet certain federal requirements, but states have some discretion in how they design them. For example, ESEA requires states to identify low-performing schools and student subgroups for support and improvement. Senate Report 115-289 accompanying the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, and Related Agencies Appropriations Bill, 2019, includes a provision for GAO to review states' school improvement activities. This report addresses (1) how states identify and allocate funds for schools identified for support and improvement; and (2) the extent to which states have capacity to support districts' school improvement activities and how helpful states find Education's technical assistance. GAO analyzed the most current approved state accountability plans from all 50 states and the District of Columbia as of September 2020. The information in these plans predates the COVID-19 pandemic and represents a baseline from which to compare school improvement activities going forward. GAO also surveyed and received responses from all 50 states and the District of Columbia. GAO also conducted follow-up interviews with officials in three states selected based on variation in reported capacity and geographic diversity. For more information, contact Jacqueline M. Nowicki at (617) 788-0580 or nowickij@gao.gov.
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  • United States Files Complaint Against Nutter Home Loans for Forging Certifications and Using Unqualified Underwriters to Approve Government-Insured Reverse Mortgages
    In Crime News
    The United States has filed a complaint under the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery and Enforcement Act of 1989 and the False Claims Act against Nutter Home Loans, f/k/a James B. Nutter & Co. (Nutter), for forging certifications and using unqualified underwriters to approve Federal Housing Administration (FHA) insured Home Equity Conversion Mortgages (HECM), the Department of Justice announced today. 
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  • Texas Heart Hospital and Wholly-Owned Subsidiary THHBP Management Company LLC to Pay $48 Million to Settle False Claims Act Allegations Related to Alleged Kickbacks
    In Crime News
    Texas Heart Hospital of the Southwest LLP, a partially physician-owned hospital in Plano, Texas, and its wholly owned subsidiary, THHBP Management Company, LLC (collectively, the “Heart Hospital”) have agreed to pay the United States $48 million to resolve claims that the Heart Hospital violated the False Claims Act by knowingly submitting claims to the Medicare program that resulted from violations of the Physician Self-Referral Law and the Anti Kickback Statute, the Justice Department announced today.
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  • Meeting of the President’s Interagency Task Force to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons
    In Crime Control and Security News
    Michael R. Pompeo, [Read More…]
  • The Department of Justice Alleges Conditions at Cumberland County Jail Violate the Constitution
    In Crime News
    Today, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of New Jersey concluded that there is reasonable cause to believe that the conditions at the Cumberland County Jail in Bridgeton, New Jersey violate the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution.
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  • National Health Care Fraud and Opioid Takedown Results in Charges Against 345 Defendants Responsible for More than $6 Billion in Alleged Fraud Losses
    In Crime News
    Acting Assistant Attorney General Brian C. Rabbitt of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, Assistant Director Calvin Shivers of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division, Deputy Inspector General Gary Cantrell of the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General (HHS-OIG) and Assistant Administrator Tim McDermott of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) today announced a historic nationwide enforcement action involving 345 charged defendants across 51 federal districts, including more than 100 doctors, nurses and other licensed medical professionals. 
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