Equitable Adaptation Legal & Policy Toolkit


Drought Risks

A large tan barrel about the size of a shed sits next to a house. A tube connects it to the house's gutter, and it has a second exit tube at the bottom for dispensing water.
Rainwater harvesting in Tuscon, Arizona. (Source: Seri AZ Solutions, Sonora Environmental Research Institute, Inc.)

Climate change will increase the risk of drought in many parts of the country, particularly in the Southwest, but also in summer in many other areas. Droughts can limit the supply of and access to water. Policymakers can make it a priority to address the needs and vulnerabilities of frontline communities by supporting programs that ensure a reliable and affordable water supply to counter the risks of drought. Drought risks address having too little water but also include ensuring that frontline communities have reliable and affordable access to water. The two fundamental strategies for addressing drought risks are reducing water use and increasing supply. This section highlights tools for helping frontline communities maintain access to water through payment assistance programs to avoid shutoffs and to reduce demand for water from water systems and utilities.

Reduce Water Use

One way that governments and water systems can ensure frontline communities have access to water despite drought conditions is through demand reduction strategies. Demand reduction strategies include the use of technologies that consume less water. Low flow toilets and water-efficient laundry and dishwashing machines are among the water-efficient technologies that provide the same services as old technology using less water. In the western United States, where irrigating lawns is typical, water use can be reduced by planting more drought-tolerant vegetation (which for some types of vegetation may require virtually no irrigation) or reusing water from indoor uses such as showers and washing dishes and clothes (grey water) for irrigation.

Considerations of Reducing Water Use


  • Investments in water-efficient appliances or systems to supplement water supplies can have net savings within years. For example, a water-efficient toilet can save $110/year in water bills,See footnote 1 paying for itself in a few years.


  • Reduced water use in homes can leave more water in streams and lakes thus improving the aquatic environment.

Social /Equity

  • Programs aimed at helping frontline communities pay for water efficiency investment can help overcome financial and administrative barriers to such investments


  • These programs are typically administered by water utilities.


  • Water efficiency programs are usually voluntary, but some water providers have mandatory measures.See footnote 2 

Increasing Water Supply

Many rural communities lack access to reliable and affordable water supplies.See footnote 3 Much of this problem has to do with poor water quality, but some of it is the result of inadequate supplies such as in California’s Central Valley, in some tribal areas, and the colonias along the U.S.-Mexico border. The affordability of water can be a key driver in determining whether frontline communities have sustained access to water. As water rates increase, a larger share of the population is at risk of being unable to afford to pay their water bill, thus, facing water poverty.See footnote 4 

Addressing water supply problems takes two strategies. One is to install technologies that capture rain or snow for outdoor water use (such water is not considered potable). Where cost is involved, (e.g., investing in water-efficient appliances or rainwater capture), frontline communities may also need access to financing through loans or grants for the purchase and maintenance of equipment that improves water efficiency. Addressing affordability and shutoff of water supplies directly addresses cost issues faced by frontline communities.

The other strategy is to adopt programs and policies that ensure that frontline communities have sustained access to affordable water and are not cut off from obtaining water for domestic needs. Equitable approaches to ensuring access to water include policy strategies that make water rates more affordable for low-income consumers or that limit or avoid water shutoffs and other disruptions in supply.

Considerations of Assistance with Water Bills and Shutoffs


  • Increased costs for water or reductions in water deliveries imposed during droughts can have the greatest burden on frontline water consumers.
  • Unemployment and income instability resulting from economic downturns increase water affordability challenges.


  • Lack of sufficient and clean water for domestic use can lead to environmentally harmful behavior such as consuming untreated water or improperly disposing of used water.

Social /Equity

  • Safety and hygiene considerations require that all people have access to reliable and clean water supplies.
  • Increased prices or reduced deliveries during droughts can impose particular hardships on frontline communities.


  • State and local policies typically address access to water.
  • State law and institutions typically govern water allocation among municipalities and different types of users (e.g., agriculture vs. municipal).
  • Counties, cities, and towns, and water utilities allocate water among residents and set rates.


  • Municipal ordinances can require equal access to water or create programs to support frontline communities in obtaining and keeping access to water.

Lessons Learned

Reducing Water Use

  • Water utility programs can help frontline communities invest in appliances and technologies to reduce water use.
  • These investments often pay for themselves within a few years and can save the water utilities the expense and work involved in obtaining additional water supplies.
  • Investments in water efficiency can provide a buffer during droughts.

Increasing Water Supply

  • Access to affordable, reliable, and clean water is a basic human right.
  • Municipalities should invest in programs to reduce the cost of obtaining water services for low-income residents and limit cutoff of service.

Related Resources

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Tiered Assistance Program

The City of Philadelphia created the Tiered Assistance Program (TAP) in 2017 in order to address water affordability for low-income communities. Water affordability is a serious issue in this city, as well as in many other parts of the country. Unpaid bills and water debt between April 2012 and January 2018 affected 40 percent of households in Philadelphia. Under TAP, customers pay water bills at a percent of their income, and this payment is capped at 3%. Through this program’s fixed rates, Philadelphians that are struggling to pay their water bill can budget more accurately and access more affordable water, which is predicted to result in increased payment rates and reduced water debts.

Tucson AZ Rainwater Harvesting Rebates

Tucson Water Utility in the city of Tucson, Arizona has provided over $2 million for the Rainwater Harvesting Rebates program. The program allows the city’s water utility, Tucson Water, to provide rebates of up to $2,000 for the installation of rainwater catchment systems and plant trees on residential properties throughout the city. The rebates are taxable as income, so to reduce the burden on low-income neighborhoods in the city, the program was updated to include grants and loans to low-income customers. The Rainwater Harvesting Rebates program focuses on low-income areas that have sparse vegetation and tend to be hotter than other areas with more vegetation. Tucson works with the Sonora Environmental Research Institute, a nonprofit, to distribute rainwater-harvesting systems to low-income and Spanish-speaking residents with zero-interest loans up to $2000 to families with income up to 80% of median income in the area and grants up to $400 to families with incomes up to 50% of area income. Low-income neighborhoods have 6% of the total amount of rainwater catchment systems subsidized by the city.

Sacramento, California Leak Free Program

The City of Sacramento Department of Utilities (DOU) Leak Free program pays for leak repair in the homes of low-income Sacramento residents. Recipients of the service must be homeowners and must live in areas designated by the State of California as being a “Disadvantaged Community” (DAC). The characteristics of a DAC include poverty, high unemployment, air and water pollution, and the presence of hazardous wastes as well as a high incidence of asthma and heart disease. Through this program, residents who may not have access to affordable plumbing can sign up for one house visit from a contracted plumber.

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