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Many Americans cannot afford basic water services

Since utilities in the United States receive limited federal or state investment to cover the costs of infrastructure, treatment, operations, and maintenance, they largely rely on fees charged to households or businesses using their services. Unfortunately, these fees have steadily risen over the past few decades, causing many people significant affordability problems. 

For instance, according to a recent study led by Duke University, in 787 communities served by the country’s largest utilities, 17 percent of households currently struggle to afford basic water services, with 28.3 million people spending more than one day each month working to pay for water and sanitation services.

“Safe, reliable water services are essential for everyone to thrive, but a substantial number of Americans may be finding them difficult to afford,” said lead author Lauren Patterson, a senior fellow in Energy, Environment, and Sustainability at Duke. “When costs rise faster than incomes, it strains the budgets of a wide swath of U.S. households already struggling to make ends meet, as well as utilities trying to adequately serve their customers.”

For their analyses, Patterson and her colleagues assumed 6,000 gallons of water per month to be sufficient to meet the basic water needs of an average U.S. household, defined water services as affordable if they cost less than 4.6 percent of monthly income (equal to a day’s worth of work at minimum wage), and focused primarily on utility systems serving over 100,000 people. 

When they repeated the analysis for smaller utility systems serving less than 10,000 people, they discovered that the average customer paid even more each month, making unaffordability even more pervasive.

“If anything, our estimates of the breadth of water unaffordability are on the conservative side,” explained co-author Sophia Bryson, an environmental scientist at LimnoTech, a water science and environmental engineering company. 

“No matter how strictly we set the parameters, we found households struggling to pay their water bills in every single community in our sample. This is a systemic issue for the water sector that is not limited to a specific region, nor strictly urban or rural communities.” 

According to the scientists, many factors play a role in this problematic situation, including low household incomes, increased regulatory and energy costs, aging infrastructure, population loss, climate change, and the increasing costs of capital associated to finance. 

To immediately help households unable to pay their bills, utility customer assistance programs and other safety net measures are urgently needed. Over the longer term though, larger approaches incorporating finance, governance, and equity, and spanning from the local to the state and federal scale are necessary to reduce utility costs and income inequality.

“Congress passed the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1974 after a nationwide survey showed 14 percent of households were getting drinking water that didn’t meet basic public health guidelines. If that was enough to draw nationwide attention to water quality, then perhaps a similar focus on water affordability is warranted now,” concluded co-author Martin Doyle, a professor of River Science and Policy at Duke.

The study is published in the journal PLOS Water.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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