A study, funded by the National Science Foundation, out of Michigan State University predicts that “the percentage of U.S. households who will find water bills unaffordable could triple from 11.9% to 35.6%” over the next five years. “In cities across the United States, water affordability is becoming an increasingly critical issue,” said Elizabeth Mack, an assistant geography professor who analyzed water consumption, pricing and demographic and socioeconomic data for the study.
Water costs have increased at an alarming rate – 41% since 2010. If that growth continues, then more and more homes will be unable to afford water.
The EPA says that water and wastewater services shouldn’t cost more than 4.5% of household income. That means that bills can become unaffordable because of both rising prices, and also lowering incomes. This puts Mississippi in the high-risk category, says lead author Elizabeth Mack, because many families make less than $32,000. Southern states dominate the high-risk list, though Ohio ranks ninth and Michigan ranks 12th.
“Water is a fundamental right for all humans,” Mack said. “However, a growing number of people in the United States and globally face daily barriers to accessing clean, affordable water.”
In poorer areas, the population is shrinking enough that there aren’t enough people left to pay for these fixed costs. Almost half of the accounts in Philadelphia, 227,000 customers, are past due, and 50,000 people in Detroit have had their service terminated since 2014. These costs could rise even further if cities turn to private water companies to provide service. Households in Atlanta and Seattle are paying more than $300 a month for water and wastewater services (based on a family of four).
Much of the country is running on WWII-era infrastructure, and it is starting to fail. According to Mack’s report, the cost for upgrades will cost $1 trillion over the next 25 years, and that will drive prices still higher.
If we carry on as we are going, a third of the population won’t be able to afford water. “Governments, utilities, and consumers will need to work together to solve a growing affordability problem,” writes Mack.