Millions of Americans, especially in poor and minority communities, are at risk of losing access to affordable drinking water as the costs of upgrading aging infrastructure and droughts send water prices higher across many cities.
“Water rates have been increasing over the last twenty years, if not longer,” Casey Wichman, an economist at Georgia Institute of Technology, told China Daily.
In 2020, research conducted with co-author Diego Cardoso, an economist from Purdue University, Wichman noted that the cost of water services in the US is rising three times faster than inflation. In addition, water infrastructure will require an investment of more than $1 trillion over the next 20-25 years.
Almost 14 percent of households have water and sewer expenditures that were greater than 4.5 percent of their annual household incomes. For the poorest households, the water bills made up on average 8.1 percent of their annual income, the study found.
Wichman said the real culprit to the water affordability issue is the “widening income inequality and stagnant income growth for many Americans”.
“Water affordability policies that preserve the incentive to conserve water can help lower-income families, but issues driven by income inequality would persist even if water was free,” he said.
Low-income and black residents are disproportionately affected by rising water bills, the researcher said, noting “a significant positive relationship between water affordability concerns and the proportion of black households within a community even after controlling for poverty levels”.
The water-affordability crisis comes at a time when many parts of the country are experiencing by unprecedented heat waves, which greatly affect the quality and quantity of fresh water. Extremely dry conditions result in drought and increased water demand. To make up for the increasing water consumption and the costs of maintaining aging infrastructure of water systems, rates are rising.
Experts are concerned that the higher price rates are taking a toll on those in poor and minority neighborhoods,many of whom are already struggling with high energy bills and economic challenges imposed by the current high inflation rate.
Water affordability is ultimately an income inequality issue, Wichman said. Besides lower-income communities, which are more likely to face affordability problems, poorer families in wealthy cities could also feel the burden of rising water prices, he added.
Mary Grant, a water justice advocate from the Washington DC-based Food and Water Watch, said water and sewer rates had jumped about 40 percent from 2008 to 2014.
Citing a 2017 study by a scholar from Michigan State University, Grant said nearly 12 percent of American households find water bills unaffordable. If water prices continue rising at projected rates, nearly 36 percent of households would be unable to afford water within five years, she said.
“This affordability crisis has already made headlines in cities like Detroit and Baltimore, but low-income households in communities across the country are struggling to pay their water bills,” Grant told China Daily.
Baltimore’s residents will see their water rates and sewer rates increase by 3 percent and 3.5 percent, respectively, each year for the next three years, according to the city’s public works department. With the price bump, a typical household will need to pay $130.21 per month by 2024.
The city has steadily increased rates over the years due to infrastructure maintenance, according to public radio station WYPR. In 1997, the water bill per household was about $12.83, WYPR reported.
An average monthly water bill in Detroit is around $75, according to Michigan Radio. The water and sewage collection rate has dropped 20 percent since the pandemic started. The delay in residents’ payments would cost the city $38 million this year, which would in turn push up the rates for next year, the radio station reported.
“When households receive unaffordable water bills, they may cut back on medicine, groceries or other essentials, or they do not pay for their water service. It is a simple reality that unaffordable bills are often unpaid bills,” Grant said.
Utility companies often use service shutoffs on households unable to pay water bills, cutting off access to running water while people are sheltering at home during the pandemic. Low-income households are particularly vulnerable to water shutoffs since the bills take up a higher share of their income, she said.
The costs of replacing and upgrading aging infrastructure play a big role in the water bill hikes. Most water infrastructure in the nation was built more than 50 years ago and is still being used well beyond useful life, Wichman said.
“As an anecdote, while digging into some water main break data for Washington DC, several years ago, we uncovered a break that occurred on wooden water main that was installed prior to the Civil War and still in operation in the 2010s,” he added.
Federal funding for water infrastructure has dropped 77 percent from 1977 to 2017, a per capita decrease of 84 percent in funding, Grant said. The 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law provided a down payment to bridge that gap, but it only met 7 percent of the identified water needs, she said.
Water rates are also rising for residents of California, which is undergoing a third year of drought. The record dry spell is threatening many people’s access to safe drinking water as water deliveries slowed down and wells dried up.
Caitlin Peterson, research fellow and associate center director at the Public Policy Institute of California’s Water Policy Center, said water rates have been going up in the nation’s most populous state because of various factors, such as infrastructure upgrades, the search for new sources and types of water supplies, as well as the need to meet changing standards for water treatment.
“The State Water Board estimated that about 21 percent of the state’s water systems have rates that are unaffordable for basic things like cooking and washing when you look at the cost of water as a share of a community’s median income. And about 34 percent of low-income households are likely in need of rate assistance,” she told China Daily.
Utility companies are limited in what they can do to reduce prices due to a state constitutional amendment that requires water rates to be closely linked to the cost of services, Peterson said. She urged federal and state governments to step up efforts to assist low-income customers with their water bills.
There are many things that families could do to save water, such as taking shorter showers and turning off the faucet while brushing teeth, however, these actions will probably not have a major impact on overall affordability issues. Using less water outdoors would have a bigger impact, but the families who can’t afford water bills “are likely not the ones with lush, irrigated landscapes”, Wichman said.
“What needs to happen is to develop wide-scale affordability policies at the national, state or local level that provide targeted support to families who need it without diminishing the signal about the value of water that its price sends,” he added.