Struggling to Serve a Thirsty Public

July 26, 2017

As utilities across America struggle to afford the repair of aging water infrastructure and climate change impacts water scarcity, the nation’s poor are simultaneously challenged to pay rising water bills. And this ever-expanding economic gap promises to present grave problems within the next decade.

Water rates across the nation are increasing. The price of water increased an average of four percent in 30 large US cities from 2010 to 2017, Circle of Blue recently reported. But in Los Angeles, during the same seven-year period, rates rose by 71%; in San Francisco, they rose about 120%. For families under the poverty line, that can mean spending a large portion of their annual income on water.

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Today there is no federal water bill assistance program in place. And according to the US Census Bureau, 14.8% of the US population lived in poverty in 2014. A 2016 EPA review of 795 US utilities found that seven out of 10 did not have a rate assistance program in place for customers.

“We have lifeline rates for electricity, weatherization, even telephones, but we do not have a statewide program that ensures that people have affordable water,” J.R. DeShazo of UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs pointed out to LA Times contributor Michael Hiltzic.

California’s network of fragmented water organizations makes it an especially complex state. There are more than 3,000 different water agencies, many of which are small utilities already challenged to bear the financial impact of infrastructure renewal. For this reason, California policy makers are currently developing a state-run program to support residents receiving water from utilities not offering assistance.

Other states are exploring rate assistance programs as well. Philadelphia recently implemented the nation’s first income-based water rate. The plan ensures that households earning less than 50% of the federal property line will pay no more than 2% of their monthly income on water and wastewater charges. Rates rise in correlation with income. And in Atlanta, voters approved the extension of a 1% sales tax—initially put in place to fund infrastructure repair—to help distribute water costs beyond ratepayers.

For utilities bearing the costs of daily operation, maintenance, regulatory compliance, and long-term capital investments, providing additional economic assistance for low-income customers can seem overwhelming. We’re curious, how is your organization navigating water affordability concerns?

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About the Author

Laura Sanchez

Laura Sanchez is the editor of Distributed Energy and Water Efficiency magazines.

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