The Crisis of Unaffordable Water in the U.S.

originally posted on June 8, 2016


BOSTON, MA –(Marketwired – June 08, 2016) – Between 2010 and 2015, water and wastewater costs rose 41 percent, nearly five times the rate of inflation over that same time period. This has created a crisis of water unaffordability for many Americans, according to a new report released today by the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC). The report, “The Invisible Crisis: Water Unaffordability in the United States,” sheds new light on the breadth of the country’s water crisis, pinpoints drivers of inequality, reveals damaging impacts people face when they can’t afford or access basic water and sanitation services, and argues that real affordability programs can and must be established to ensure that all people in the United States have access to needed water and sanitation services.

“Water is essential for life, but universal access to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation has not been achieved in the United States,” said Amber Moulton, the researcher in UUSC’s Programs, Advocacy, and Action Department, and co-author of the report. “Lower income Americans and those facing economic crises struggle to pay rising water and sanitation costs resulting in shutoffs and other negative consequences.”

For many Americans, the problem begins before they even face the question of water quality — before they turn on the faucet. The problem begins with whether there is any water coming out of the tap and how much it costs. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) uses median income to determine affordability when evaluating compliance measures, not whether the cost of services is actually affordable to low-income households. This means that the wealthiest Americans’ water service costs are often considered a negligible part of households’ budgets. Many people even consider water cheap. Meanwhile, low-income individuals and families are often left paying more.

“The lack of data we have on the number of Americans struggling to afford basic water services is criminal,” said Roger Colton, an economist and principal of Fisher, Sheehan & Colton. “What we do know, however, is that the number is large and that rethinking the way that costs are calculated will not only benefit consumers, but utilities who will see more people paying bills on time under a more equitable system.”

Right now, cities and utilities not only lose when consumers can’t afford to pay their bills; they actually miss out on potential revenue that could be gained through affordable rate structures. Still, the consequences are far more dire for consumers and their families: an inability to pay a water bill can lead to shutoffs and other collateral impacts ranging from home evictions and tax liens to foreclosure and the loss of one’s home. In 21 states, a parent’s inability to provide running water in the home can be considered “child neglect” and contribute to a child being removed from a home.

Furthermore, an inability to gain or maintain access to affordable, clean drinking water has detrimental impacts on one’s health. For example, a lack of investment in water and sanitation services can lead to health and hygiene problems. Lower-income children of color without adequate sanitation facilities in Alabama, for instance, have contracted hookworm, a tropical parasite that is no longer commonly found in the United States. Communities lacking basic sanitation services and access to affordable water also tend to have lower property values, which helps to contribute to the cycle of poverty. This also helps to explain the disproportionate impact that water injustice has on communities of color. Still, these impacts are not limited geographically and negative impacts are already being felt across the country.

“It makes no sense that in the richest nation in the world, rural poor children living along the historic Selma to Montgomery March trail are forced to live in third world conditions playing amongst raw sewage,” said Catherine Flowers, Director of Environmental Justice at the Center for Earth Ethics in Alabama. “Unfortunately, the lack of investment is rural infrastructure is common through the United States.”

With inadequate regulatory policy in place to make water affordable to consumers, the cost of system upgrades and the cost to treat and clean water contaminated by agricultural and industrial pollution can be passed downstream. At the same time, vast sections of the country are without water-related infrastructure or have historically been excluded from infrastructure upgrades that are desperately needed. For example, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 2 million Americans — many Native Americans, Alaskan Natives, and those living in communities along the U.S. southern border — do not have access to complete plumbing facilities. These barriers speak to the need for prioritized investment in upgrades and funding to excluded and vulnerable communities, the report noted.

“Millions of Americans still lack consistent access to safe water sources or adequate sanitation due to historic discrimination, ailing and inadequate infrastructure, pollution, and other factors,” said Alice Jennings, a civil and human rights attorney who is currently representing plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit related to water shut-offs in Detroit. “It’s time that the richest nation on earth take steps to advance an omnibus, national Water Civil Rights Act in order to establish water as a human right.”

In order to address the gaps in the system and ensure that all people in the United States have universal access to clean and affordable water, UUSC outlined a set of recommended policy reforms at the local, state, and federal levels. The recommendations include establishing legal bans on water shutoffs for those who cannot pay, protections for the most vulnerable populations, and national recognition of the human right to water and sanitation. UUSC also called for affordability programs at all levels of government to ensure that safe drinking water and sanitation costs do not exceed 2.5 percent of a family’s monthly household income. In addition, UUSC calls for extensive data collection down to the household level in order to better track water and sanitation costs and lack of access.

While some strides have been made at the local level to introduce and advance legislation to address affordability, there is still much work to be done. In order to begin to make headway in making water affordable for all, UUSC recommended:

  • Banning water shutoffs for nonpayment when customers do not have the ability to pay. At a minimum, mandate protections against water shutoffs for low-income children (under age 18), individuals over 65 years old, persons with disabilities, pregnant and lactating women, and persons with chronic and catastrophic illness
  • Requiring regulatory agencies to study and work to remedy the impact of unregulated pollution on the cost of water and sanitation for customers
  • Prioritizing and targeting water and sanitation funding to those who do not have it and vulnerable populations first, followed by other investments as needed
  • Adopting the human right to water and sanitation in domestic law with clear enforcement mechanisms and remedies.

The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) is a human rights organization powered by grassroots collaboration, working throughout the United States and more than a dozen other countries worldwide. Since 1940, UUSC has fostered social, economic, and environmental justice, protected civil liberties, worked toward a world free from oppression, delivered aid with dignity, and advanced the rights of people left behind during conflicts and natural disasters.

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