The Price of Comfort

It may surprise some Americans to know that within our thriving, capitalist culture there is a growing segment of people living in third world conditions, with limited access to water and proper sanitation. What is not surprising is most of these people live in or on the edge of poverty. In an era of large corporate tax cuts and the slashing of social welfare programs, what will become of people without access to services most of us consider essential?

The prognoses for their return to normalcy looks bleak. Researchers at Michigan State University are projecting “the number of U.S. households unable to afford water could triple in five years, to nearly 36 percent”. The study concluded there are three main factors behind rising water rates: aging infrastructure, shrinking populations in urban areas and climate change.

Population trends show wealthier citizens moving out of inner cities and into the suburbs, leaving lower income residents to fend off the costs of large, aging infrastructures. Detroit is a perfect example of this type of mass exodus of wealth out of large cities.

In a March 22, 2016 online article, Circle of Blue reporter Brett Walton describes how after World War II, Detroit was the wealthiest city in America with a population of 1.8 million people, 80% of whom were white. Now its population is 680,000 (less than half of its peak) and 80% black with 40% percent of them living below the poverty level. Walton states “Those remaining have inherited the legacy costs of a city built for an absent 1 million people.”

Detroit is not the only city facing an uphill water pricing battle. A December 13, 2017 Circle of Blue online report featured a similar story for Philadelphia. The piece notes how the Philadelphia Water Department has about 86,000 household accounts, but one in five accounts have had their water shut off at least once over the last 5 years largely because of overdue bills. The culprit here is not only lack of money but also local policy.

The problems of aging infrastructure are well known among the utilities sector. This issue has been highlighted over the past several years in various technical media. The 2012 American Water Works Association (AWWA) report “Buried No Longer – Confronting America’s Water Infrastructure Challenge” revealed that “restoring existing water systems and expanding them to serve a growing population will cost at least $1 trillion over the next 25 years.”

In a 2016 American Society for Civil Engineers (ASCE) report, every American household is projected to lose $3,400 annually between 2016 and 2025 because of deteriorating infrastructure. Furthermore, the 2016 ASCE report contends the economic impact of America’s infrastructure issues could cost 2.5 million jobs by 2025 and up to 5.8 million jobs by 2040 if appropriate investments are not made.  Clearly, the time to act is now.

In addition to aging infrastructure and shrinking urban populations, climate change has been implicated in future water pricing trends. Scientists are increasingly finding evidence directly linking extreme weather events to human-caused climate change, suggesting that observed trends are likely to continue.

This is startling when you consider The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recently released a compilation of “U.S. Billion-Dollar Weather & Climate Disasters 1980-2017”. In the report they detail 218 weather and climate disasters that have occurred since 1980 in which overall damages/costs reached or exceeded $1 billion. As we have seen again this past year with Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, these large weather events are becoming more common. If this trend continues, we have to ask how much more can our economy take?

If our overall economy is at risk, what chance do our poorest citizens have of maintaining basic services? There must be a better way.

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