Universal access to water isn’t much good if people can’t afford that water. That’s true in the developing world, but it’s also true in the U.S. A new paper from the 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.
This isn’t just a concern for the people who need water, either. It’s also a big problem for water utilities, because, if so many people can’t pay their bills, then the water companies have trouble covering their costs, which will then be passed on to the customers who can afford to pay.
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. Many other southern states are also at risk.
But water costs have increased, too–a staggering 41% since 2010. If that growth continues, then more and more homes will be unable to afford water. Not only that, but because the people who can’t afford water are often concentrated geographically, they can put extra pressure on utility companies’ ability to operate. It’s one thing to have a few homes defaulting on their bills, but if it’s whole communities, then the costs will get passed on to the customers who can pay. Some of us can absorb those increases, but in many cases, the extra cost will cause yet more lower-income households to default.
Water services have a large fixed cost, and a big chunk of that is building and maintaining infrastructure. 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.
Then, 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 (Atlanta, Georgia, has private service and costs $325.52 per month, one of the most expensive rates in the U.S.).
Add to this the effects of climate change, which means that infrastructure has to be improved even more to waste as little water as possible, and you can see the scale of the problem.
These are conservative estimates, says Mack. If we carry on as we are going, a third of the population won’t be able to afford water. That’s a rather embarrassing figure for a developed nation. What’s the answer? It’s not good. “Governments, utilities, and consumers will need to work together to solve a growing affordability problem,” writes Mack. Given the current political climate, and the precedent of care set by the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, her conclusion looks rather optimistic.