How to run a big city water system during a pandemic

This week, we’re talking with Randy Hayman, commissioner and CEO of the Philadelphia Water Department. He was appointed by Mayor James Kenney in 2019.

Hayman comes from a lineage of public service. His father, Robert B. E. Hayman, was a public school teacher and principle of St. Louis’s Sumner High School, the first high school for African American students west of the Mississippi River.

I spoke to Hayman about running a large municipal water system during a pandemic. Nationwide, water systems were already facing shrinking funding, rising water bills, and aging infrastructure before COVID-19. Things have only gotten more difficult for both public officials and the rest of us, all of whom rely on water, a necessary public good.

Here’s my conversation with Randy Hayman.

JEREMY: How has the pandemic impacted Philadelphia’s water system?

RANDY: Our system is resilient. That is not good luck—it is designed for reliability because so much depends on reliable access water services. 

We did see an increase in wipes, gloves, and items that shouldn’t be flushed coming into our systems. That strains staff and infrastructure. We adjusted in some areas and reminded customers that flushing anything but toilet paper can cause serious problems.   

JEREMY: Many water and wastewater systems nationwide were struggling with capital repairs because of revenue issues even before COVID-19. What’s the solution?

RANDY: There is no single revenue solution. In the immediate future, we need to raise rates to bring in critically needed revenue.

We are funding key projects using our state’s revolving loan program for water infrastructure, PENNVEST. We are advocating for stronger overall federal support for the water sector and working with our partners in state and local government to explore funding from existing or proposed relief legislation.

On the stormwater and combined sewer overflow front, we want more investment and shared responsibility from all sectors. With new regulations and emerging issues, we must find new ways to balance our budget and invest in critical infrastructure.

JEREMY: We consider water a necessary public good. I assume you agree. Why is that so?

RANDY: In the global sense, fresh drinking water is a public good we all care for and should have access to, like fresh air. But when you get a Philadelphia water bill, we provide drinking water, stormwater, and wastewater services. Those are just our core services. There’s much more that a Philly water bill funds.

But even if you just look at drinking water, it takes chemicals, metal for infrastructure, energy to run pumps, people working in labs—these are a few examples of what is needed to ensure safe water, and none are treated as “public goods.”

At the same time, we know better than most how essential access to clean water and toilets that flush is. We serve as a cost-of-service utility, not to create profits. We pioneered income and hardship-based assistance programs to help customers unable afford standard water rates.

During the pandemic, we’ve kept the water flowing even when residents couldn’t pay bills. We also restored water to more than 15,000 accounts when stay-at-home orders were issued.

There are costs, but we are steadfastly dedicated to public health and protecting our customers. And, we had the flexibility to support our city because of careful financial planning.

JEREMY: How do you see your role in advancing the common good in Philadelphia?

RANDY: We must have a role in fostering a diverse new generation of water industry experts in engineering, engagement, science, construction, plant operation, and even law, which is my background.

We have a role in how we meet state and federal regulations. Our Green City, Clean Waters program allows us to reduce stormwater pollution, but also invests in our communities.

We invest in the common good by prioritizing equity both in the workplace and in how we deliver services.

Photo by Mike Kelley, Philadelphia Water Department.