A disturbing trend involving access to water is emerging in the United States. People in communities around the country are struggling to stay connected to their local water services, primarily due to large price increases. Lower-income households are being hit the hardest and unlike with other utilities, financial assistance is usually not available. This begs the question of whether access to water should be considered a moral obligation or a privilege?
Certainly, in our country’s early history, access to water was far from a God given right. Early pioneers had to walk to creeks, streams or rivers to get the water they needed for daily life. Over time, technology in the form of windmills and wells and then electric pumps and wells, made getting water from the ground easier and easier. Now our country has a vast system of dams, reservoirs, canals, wells and pipes to deliver water precisely where and when it is needed.
In this modern era of seemingly abundant water, should access be limited to only those who can pay for it? Our gut reaction may be ‘no’ but our wallets may be saying something else.
There are several reasons for the substantial increase in water service costs. In December 2017, Michigan State University (MSU) published research concluding the main reasons behind rising water rates include aging infrastructure, shrinking populations in urban areas and climate change.
Other factors contributing to burgeoning water prices are mentioned in a 2017 Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) study. This study discusses the need to recover costs due to declining demand (often a result of conservation programs) as well as rising operations and maintenance costs, all of which contribute to higher rates.
A loss of government funding hasn’t helped the situation. As noted in a University of Pennsylvania online article, Congress switched from offering grants which covered up to 75% of water infrastructure, to offering loans. This change means that local communities are now fully responsible for their water projects and are expected to repay the loans. Due to all these issues, cities and towns have raised rates to cover costs.
Exactly how to handle increasing service costs is a compelling conundrum. In 2016, the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) highlighted the growing problem of water unaffordability in the United States. The UUSC report notes the “cost of household water services has risen 40% from 2010 to 2015” in some major U.S. cities. Couple this with MSU research projections estimating that “the number of U.S. households unable to afford water could triple in five years, to nearly 36 percent” and you can quickly see the significance of the problem.
Rising rates combined with inflation have crippled lower-income households. The UUSC report notes that in “some communities’ water and sanitation services command 4–19% of monthly household income, well beyond what could be considered affordable” for people in the lowest 20% income bracket. Internationally, its agreed that expenses for water and sewer services should not exceed between 2-5% of household income.
As troubling as all this data is, the crux of the problem may lie in the ever-widening gap between the wealthy and the poor in this country. As reported in a March 22, 2016 Circle of Blue online article, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the U.S. Census Bureau has data showing the income of the top 5% of American households increased 60% between 1980 and 2014 while the bottom 10% had incomes that fell over the same period.
As the old saying goes, “the poor get poorer and the rich get richer” and now there’s data to prove it.