24th June 2020
EDITORS NOTE: This is so tragic and sad! Why does our media not cover this travesty?
Revealed: millions of Americans can’t afford water as bills rise 80% in a decade
Millions of ordinary Americans are facing rising and unaffordable bills for running water, and risk being disconnected or losing their homes if they cannot pay, a landmark Guardian investigation has found.
Exclusive analysis of 12 US cities shows the combined price of water and sewage increased by an average of 80% between 2010 and 2018, with more than two-fifths of residents in some cities living in neighbourhoods with unaffordable bills.
In the first nationwide research of its kind, our findings reveal the painful impact of America’s expanding water poverty crisis as aging infrastructure, environmental clean-ups, changing demographics and the climate emergency fuel exponential price hikes in almost every corner of the country.
America’s growing water affordability crisis comes as the Covid-19 pandemic underlines the importance of access to clean water. The research shows that rising bills are not just hurting the poorest but also, increasingly, working Americans.
“More people are in trouble, and the poorest of the poor are in big trouble,” said Roger Colton, a leading utilities analyst, who was commissioned by the Guardian to analyse water poverty. “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.”
Water bills exceeding 4% of household income are considered unaffordable.
Colton’s 88-page report is published today at the launch of a major project on America’s water emergency by the Guardian, Consumer Reports and other partners.
Our research found that between 2010 and 2018 water bills rose by at least 27%, while the highest increase was a staggering 154% in Austin, Texas, where the average annual bill rose from $566 in 2010 to $1,435 in 2018 - despite drought mitigation efforts leading to reduced water usage.
Meanwhile, federal aid to public water utilities, which serve around 87% of people, has plummeted while maintenance, environmental and health threats, climate shocks and other expenditures have skyrocketed.
“A water emergency threatens every corner of our country. The scale of this crisis demands nothing short of a fundamental transformation of our water systems. Water should never be treated as commodity or a luxury for the benefit of the wealthy,” said water justice advocate Mary Grant from Food and Water Watch, reacting to the Guardian’s research.
In Washington, 90 lawmakers from across the country – all Democrats – are pushing for comprehensive funding reforms to guarantee access to clean, affordable running water for every American.
The Guardian’s investigation shows that the water poverty crisis is likely to get much worse, with bills in many cities becoming unaffordable for the majority of America’s poor over the next decade.
In Austin, Texas,if prices in the city continue to go up at the current rate, more than four-fifths of low income residents – defined as people living under 200% of the federal poverty line (FPL) – could face unaffordable bills by 2030.
In Tucson, Arizona, another drought affected city, the number of low income residents facing unaffordable bills doubled to 46% between 2010 and 2018 – as the average bill increased by 119% to $869.
Rising costs are disproportionately impacting poor Americans. In New Orleans, Santa Fe and Cleveland, about three quarters of low income residents live in neighbourhoods where average water and sewage bills are unaffordable.
Amid rising costs and diminishing federal dollars, the use of punitive measures – shutoffs and liens (a legal claim on the house linked to a debt which can lead to foreclosure) – is widespread. Just like mortgage foreclosures, water shutoffs and liens can force affected households to abandon their homes.
Jarome Montgomery, 48, a truck driver from Warrensville Heights in Cleveland has borrowed from his partner, mother, grandmother and sisters to repay more than $30,000 to the water department since 2013, and avoid his home being auctioned off at a tax sale. Despite this, he still owes over $5,000 in water and sewer charges including penalties and interest.
“I’ve done two payment plans, but I’m still in foreclosure, it’s like they’re trying to make me homeless,” said Montgomery. “There is no way I’m using the amount of water they’re charging me for but I’m in a no-win situation, I don’t want to lose my home so I have to keep finding the money.”
n San Diego, the average bill was $1,416 in 2018: 62% of low income people live in neighbourhoods where the average bill was unaffordable, representing almost one in five of the city’s total population. Among the poor, one in seven faced average water bills upward of 12% of the total household income in 2018.
Currently, tech hub Seattle has the lowest poverty rate of the cities analysed, and only 13% of Seattleites struggle to afford water – even though bills rose to $1,254 in 2018 in order to help fund earthquake and climate change resilience improvements. Nevertheless, by 2030, three quarters of low income residents could be living in neighbourhoods with unaffordable bills.
Nationwide, water bills were almost universally unaffordable for the poorest poor in 2018. In 11 of the 12 cities, 100% of the population with incomes below 50% of the federal poverty level lived in neighbourhoods with unaffordable water bills, with the twelfth city, Fresno, reaching 99.9%
Federal funding for water systems has fallen by 77% in real terms since its peak in 1977 – leaving local utilities to raise the money that is needed to upgrade infrastructure, comply with safety standards for toxic contaminants like PFAS, lead and algae blooms, and adapt to extreme weather conditions like drought and floods linked to global heating.
For years, maintenance and clean-up projects were deferred by utilities, which has contributed to the current infrastructure and toxic water crisis. . This helps explain why more than $6bn worth of water is lost annually to leaks, according to industry analysts Bluefield Research.
“High-cost low-quality water is a national issue… the federal government is clearly not playing the role it needs to play,” said Howard Neukrug, director of the water centre at the University of Pennsylvania and former head of Philadelphia’s water department.
“The bottom line is that assuming there’s no federal helicopter with $1tn, rates are going to go up dramatically to pay for infrastructure and quality issues,” he added.
At least $35bn every year for 20 years – that’s how much investment the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says is needed just to comply with federal safety regulations for water, sewage and storm water.
Part of the problem is that For years, maintenance and clean-up projects were deferred by utilities, without squirreling away money or planning for the climate crisis. It’s led to a massive backlog, for instance, More than $6bn worth of water is lost annually to leaks, according to industry analysts Bluefield Research.
Putting off improvements is no longer an option, so cities must now borrow the money to invest in infrastructure programmes and/or hike up prices in order to deliver safe, clean water.
Nationwide, the rising cost of water has significantly outstripped the consumer price index over the past decade.
The US is the only country in the industrialized world without a regulatory system – like Ofwat in the UK – responsible for monitoring rates and performance, according to Stephen Gasteyer, professor of sociology at Michigan State University.
He said: “Water rates have gone up dramatically – mostly in places where people are also struggling with food, housing and other basic services. It’s a symptom of the inequalities and segregation problems we have in the US, where poor people are agglomerated in particular places and local governments are shouldered with the responsibility for raising revenue for services.”
There are federal programmes to help low income households afford energy and telecoms bills, but nothing for water. There is however, legislation proposed to fund the infrastructure shortfall and create a water affordability fund.
The water act was first introduced in 2016, and has gained momentum since it was reintroduced last year by Brenda Lawrence, Democratic congresswoman representing Michigan, and cosponsored by Bernie Sanders in the senate.
“Access to water has never been a priority in the country, because it’s been a poor person’s issue. We need to transform that mindset and make sure every American has clean running water,” said Lawrence.
...continued in Part Two