Water utility prices in the US continue to march upward, and now as many as a third of Americans may be unable to pay their monthly water bill.
In the past seven years, water rates in the US have climbed more than 50 percent on average, according to a new survey of water rates in 30 large US cities. In some locales, like Austin, Texas, rates have soared more than 150 percent, with a disproportionate impact on the poor.
The new data come from Circle of Blue, a nonprofit network of journalists and scientists who cover water issues. In this map of their data, you can see the average monthly cost for a family of four using 12,000 gallons water a month (the Environmental Protection Agency’s estimate for average household use). The differences between cities are pretty dramatic.
On average, Circle of Blue found that water rates have increased by 54 percent across the US since 2010. But changes year to year vary wildly. Between 2016 and 2017, rates only increased 4 percent on average, the smallest yearly increase since Circle of Blue began collecting data in 2010.
But rate hikes haven’t always been so modest. From 2011 to 2014, Atlanta, Las Vegas, and San Francisco all experienced double-digit increases in prices. Chicago experienced a staggering 25 percent price hike from 2011 to 2012.
What’s more, what you see in the map above is only a fraction of what people are actually paying for water in the US. Sewer and stormwater fees are not included, which can drive up a family’s monthly water bill by $100 or more. Plus, there are nearly 50,000 public drinking water systems in the US, but Circle of Blue only captures water prices in 30 major cities (they select some of America’s largest cities and smaller cities to capture better geographical representation).
But the problem with water prices in the US is there is no end in sight as to when they will stabilize. Water prices have consistently trended upward in the past seven years, and experts don’t expect this to change anytime soon.
“Rates are going up now because people are beginning to come to grips with a long-neglected need,” said Tracy Mehan, executive director of government affairs at the American Water Works Association. “But it is going to have distributional impacts on low-income customers.”
And so as water rates continue to rise, more Americans will struggle to access a basic human right — clean drinking water.
Rates are increasing to fund infrastructure, but poorer Americans will be disproportionately impacted
The story of how America’s water systems found themselves in such dire straits begins with a post–World War II infrastructure boom followed by 40 years of neglect. Which is to say, now many water systems across the US are in desperate need of repair. And to pay for water systems’ rising fixed costs, water utilities inevitably have to raise water rates.
But many utilities’ budgets are increasingly strained by other factors: shrinking customer bases (as is the case in a city like Detroit) and falling water use among customers (largely due to conservation efforts).
Another compounding factor is that federal funding for water infrastructure — which is how much of America’s water systems were built — has essentially dried up. Federal funding for water infrastructure now hovers at just 9 percent, when it once accounted for more than 60 percent in the late 1970s.
This is a massive problem because civil engineers estimate the price tag for overhauling America’s drinking water system and bringing it up to code will be at least $1 trillion over the next 25 years. Add to that the estimated $14 trillion to $26 billion needed to adapt water systems to climate change by 2050 and you can see that there is a serious water affordability crisis looming.
What’s more, it’s going to impact lower-income Americans the most. And in some cities, we’re already seeing this play out with citywide water shutoffs.
More than 50,000 households in Detroit have lost water services since 2014 because they couldn’t pay their bills. And Flint, Michigan, which is still in the throes of a lead poisoning crisis, threatened just last month to terminate water services for more than 8,000 people who haven’t paid their bill.
But some cities like Philadelphia are trying to ensure water access for their poorest and most vulnerable citizens by implementing water rate structures that offer low-income families reduced water rates. The city plans to roll out a tiered rate structure for customers whose incomes fall at or below 150 percent of the poverty line in July.