A new study by Bluefield Research shows that water rates have increased by 31% since 2012 — a significantly higher increase than the regular rate of inflation. That means for many US families, especially those living near or below the poverty line, can’t afford the cost of running water.
Many Americans were struggling to pay their water bills prior to COVID-19. Now the economic impact of the pandemic combined with an increased need for water usage may heighten the water crisis across the country.
Why Is Water So Expensive?
Rates are increasing all over the country, but those increases vary from city to city. The Guardian recently conducted an independent study on the rising cross of water among twelve diverse American cities. The increases ranged from 27% in Santa Fe, New Mexico to 154% in Austin, Texas. The costs associated with providing water have been impacted by a combination of environmental issues and deterioration in infrastructure.
According to a 2017 report by the American Society of Civil Engineers, water pipes are aging. Most pipes were laid in the middle of the last century and have a 50 to 75-year lifespan, leaving much of the infrastructure that provides water to US homes in need of major repair. Because repairs are costly, many cities have delayed and are now faced with leaking pipes and sub-standard water systems.
Water infrastructure was once subsidized by the federal government, but since the height of that funding in 1977, federal funding of water systems has declined by 77%. That leaves cities with no choice but to pass along the cost of repairs to the individual households, making water bills soar across the country.
What Can Be Done?
Rates are expected to steadily increase over the next several years. While that’s a source of concern for all Americans, low-income families are the most at risk. Water bills that exceed 4% of a family’s income are considered unaffordable. In 2018, approximately 30% of poor residents lived in an area where the average water bill accounted for more than 12% of household income. These increasing rates could put more and more families in this category.
Some cities are doing their best to help low income families. Philadelphia has a Tiered Assistance Program (TAP) that provides rates based on household income for those families with incomes less than 150% of poverty level. As costs rise, many other cities are expected to follow suit.
The federal government is also aware of the water crisis and the threat it presents to low-income families. More than 90 lawmakers sponsored The Water Affordability, Transparency, Equity, and Reliability Act of 2019. The bill seeks comprehensive reforms in funding that would ensure clean water was available and affordable to all Americans.
“Access to water has never been a priority in the country, because it’s been a poor person’s issue,” said Michigan House Representative, Brenda Lawrence (D), co-sponsor of the legislation. “We need to transform that mindset and make sure every American has clean running water.”