“Federal funding for water systems has fallen by 77 percent in real terms since its peak in 1977,” according to data from The Guardian US.

By Mike Pomranz
June 24, 2020
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Running water is something many Americans may take for granted, a public utility that is just a tap-turn away. But water isn’t free, and a new report from The Guardian US—co-published by Consumer Reports—suggests that water and sewage bills in America have increased steeply over the past decade, and millions of Americans could be at risk.

Looking at “12 diverse cities” between 2010 and 2018, The Guardian found that the combined price of water and sewage grew by an average of 80 percent, leaving large chunks of residents—over two-fifths in some areas—with what the news site described as “unaffordable bills” (defined as more than four percent of household income), creating an “expanding water poverty crisis.”

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“More people are in trouble, and the poorest of the poor are in big trouble,” Roger Colton—billed as “a leading utilities analyst” who was commissioned to produce the study—was quoted as saying. “The data shows that we’ve got an affordability problem in an overwhelming number of cities nationwide that didn’t exist a decade ago, or even two or three years ago in some cities.”

In seven of the 12 cities reviewed, over 50 percent of low-income residents had unaffordable bills; and in the three most widely-affected cities—New Orleans, Cleveland, and Philadelphia—over a quarter of all city residents had water bills that exceed the four-percent-of-income threshold. Meanwhile, across the board, water bills increased by at least 27 percent, with Austin, Texas, seeing the most drastic increase: 154 percent. Comparatively, inflation over the same period is estimated to be closer to 15 percent. The Guardian cites a 2017 study showing that water rate hikes have consistently outpaced the Consumer Price Index.

The Guardian suggests that a lack of government support is a major source of the problem. “Federal aid to public water utilities, which serve around 87 percent of people, has plummeted while maintenance, environmental and health threats, climate shocks, and other expenditures have skyrocketed,” journalist Nina Lakhani writes. “Federal funding for water systems has fallen by 77 percent in real terms since its peak in 1977—leaving local utilities to raise the money.” The United States is also described as “the only country in the industrialized world without a regulatory system, responsible for monitoring rates and performance, according to Stephen Gasteyer, professor of sociology at Michigan State University.”

“High-cost low-quality water is a national issue […] the federal government is clearly not playing the role it needs to play,” Howard Neukrug, director of the water center at the University of Pennsylvania and former head of Philadelphia’s water department, told The Guardian. “The bottom line is that assuming there’s no federal helicopter with $1 trillion, rates are going to go up dramatically to pay for infrastructure and quality issues.”