Can I afford the water that comes out of my tap? It’s not a question that Americans typically ask themselves. However, a new study finds that in the next few years, many more of us might be asking that very question as we open our utility bills and realize that we’re merely accustomed to affordable water — we don’t have a guaranteed right to it.
While a good amount of research on water affordability has been conducted in the developing world, the issue has received much less attention in developed nations such as the United States. Elizabeth Mack, an assistant professor in the Michigan State University Department of Geography, Environment and Spatial Sciences, hopes to help change that with a new study she co-authored on water costs in the U.S. Her research is part of a larger effort known as the Urban Water Innovation Network, a consortium of groups addressing the many challenges facing urban water systems. For her part, Mack said she set out to answer a fairly basic question: Can people afford their water bills and how does that vary by income strata? What she found was pretty alarming: If water rates continue to go up as predicted, the number of U.S. households that can’t afford water could triple in five years.
“I think people should be concerned,” she told me.
To conduct the study, which was published this month in PLOS ONE, Mack and her research colleague, Sarah Wrase, also at Michigan State, used the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s affordability criteria for combined water and wastewater services, which states that if such bills constitute more than 4.5 percent of median household income, it’s considered unaffordable. The researchers also used income data from the U.S. Census Bureau as well as water cost data from the American Water Works Association and Circle of Blue, a nonprofit that gathers data on worldwide water resources. The study found that based on 2014 water rates, more than 13 million U.S. households — or 11.9 percent of all households in the nation — allocate more than 4.5 percent of their incomes to pay for water. And while that might not seem like a lot on the surface, Mack and Wrase write that “this is an issue for low-income and households in poverty who barely make enough money to pay for basic living expenses.”
To assess future affordability, the study considered that water costs rose 6 percent between 2014 and 2015, and 41 percent since 2010. That data was considered alongside data showing “flat” trends in household income over that last two decades. With those numbers in mind, the study found that if water prices increase more than 6 percent, more than 17 million households, or 14.7 percent of American households, will struggle to afford water. In addition, if water rates rise at the same pace as the 41 percent rise documented since 2010, Mack and Wrase find that 40.9 million households, or more than 35 percent nationwide, will have difficulty affording water. And Mack reminded me that these are conservative estimates.
In fact, the study noted that cities such as Austin, Texas; Charlotte, North Carolina; Chicago; San Francisco; and Tucson, Arizona, have all experienced water rate increases of more than 50 percent in the last five years. Mack and Wrase write:
The privatization of water services could also mean much higher water rates for customers. The privatization of water services is one of the factors behind the high water costs in Atlanta, Georgia, which at $325.52 per month has the most expensive water services in the nation. For water to be affordable at these rates, households must make at least $86,805, which is 1.6 times higher than the most recent estimates of U.S. median household income of $53,657.
To gain a clearer picture of which households will likely face water affordability problems, the study divided census tracts by a median income of $32,000, the threshold needed to afford an average water bill for a household of four that consumes 12,000 gallons of water per month — that’s what EPA considers the average water consumption for a household that size. Perhaps not surprisingly, those living in tracts where median income is below $32,000 were at high-risk for facing water affordability issues now and in the future. More surprisingly, the study found that census tracts considered “at-risk” for water affordability issues — tracts where median income is between $32,000 and $45,120 — make up more than 23 percent of all American households. That translates into an additional 27 million households that may soon struggle to afford basic water and wastewater services if water rates go up as predicted or surpass those predictions.
According to the study, the states with the highest percentage of high-risk tracts are West Virginia, Arkansas, Idaho, Montana and Mississippi. In addition, a majority of both high-risk and at-risk tracts are located in urban areas, such as Detroit or Philadelphia. In fact, the study noted that the growing affordability issue in urban communities may leave some water utilities in a no-win situation, as they face higher infrastructure maintenance costs coupled with a shrinking number of residents who can afford their water bills. The study states:
If unaffordable water bills from both rising costs and a shrinking population to pay for services cause residents to fall behind on water payments, this can mean the termination of services via water shutoffs. This is not only an economic and public health issue for residents with no service, but an economic issue for utility providers who have fewer customers over which to spread the large fixed costs of water service. This means affordability issues have cascading impacts for other customers, whose water rates may rise as utilities seek to recover the costs of service by raising rates.
So, why are water rates going up? Mack tells me it’s a variety of reasons, such as climate change-related weather events that put added pressure on wastewater infrastructure, increased privatization of water, and decreasing urban customer bases. Compounding that, the cost of upgrading the country’s water infrastructure is also high — Mack said the cost of adapting water utilities to climate change is $36 billion by 2050, while upgrading a water infrastructure not updated since WWII is $1 trillion over the next 25 years.
In terms of addressing the affordability issues, Mack said one idea is to establish national guidelines for who qualifies for subsidized water bills; right now, it’s up to individual water providers as to whether certain households receive water assistance. She also said rate structures could be designed so as to not inadvertently penalize low-income households. For example, some water providers are changing their rate structures to increase the fixed component of a water bill, with additional payment due based on a household’s water consumption. However, Mack noted, the higher the fixed cost, the more low-income households pay irrespective of how much water they actually use.
Today, in the U.S., there is no national right to water. That means if you can’t pay, the water can be shut off and there’s no recourse for residents left without this very basic human need. For instance, the study noted that mass water shutoffs in Detroit in 2014 left 50,000 households without water. (Some states and localities do protect residents from having their water shut off.) There are also no national affordability standards in the U.S. that protect low-income and vulnerable populations, including children and the elderly, from going without water. But that’s not the case everywhere. In the United Kingdom, for example, it’s illegal to turn off someone’s water for non- or delinquent payment. Such a legal protection could be adopted here as well, Mack said.
“We’re not trying to shame water providers,” she told me. “But this is a really complex problem that involves people understanding how much they actually pay for water, trying to use less water if you can, funding infrastructure to make water affordable to begin with and ensuring the quality of water doesn’t suffer.”
To download a full copy of the water affordability study, visit PLOS ONE.
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for 15 years.