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How Long Will We Be Able to Afford Water?

If current trends continue, one-third of Americans could struggle to pay their bills, a new study suggests.

By Nathan Collins


(Photo: David/Flickr)

When you think of water security, perhaps your mind turns to images of some nameless, faraway place where private water companies hike up rates on poor people desperate for water. It may come as a surprise, then, that 12 percent of Americans can’t afford clean water in their homes, according to a new analysis.

“If water rates rise at projected amounts over the next five years, conservative projections estimate that the percentage of U.S. households who will find water bills unaffordable could triple from 11.9% to 35.6%,” Michigan State University assistant professor of geography Elizabeth Mack and MSU undergraduate Sarah Wrase write in PLoS One.

Calculating water affordability can be a tricky task, since affordability is assessed by both how much water people use and how much they actually need—and what “need” even means—along with income, utility rates, and the reasonable cost for a household to spend on water. Mack and Wrase followed the Environmental Protection Agency, which estimates that the average American family of four uses about 400 gallons of water a day, or 12,000 each month, and that households should expect to pay 4.5 percent of their income on water.

To determine both incomes and water utility rates, the pair relied on the American Water Works Association’s 2014 Water and Wastewater Rate Survey, which includes data on median household income for those served by 187 water providers, as well as water bills as a percentage of median income.

Piecing all of that information together, Mack and Wrase constructed a rough estimate for a four-person household’s annual water bill: $1,440, which means the household would need to bring in at least $32,000 in income every year—meaning about 12 percent of American households can’t afford a typical water bill, Mack and Wrase conclude.

Things get worse when the researchers took into account the drought that’s likely to continue over the next few years. In Los Angeles, water rates are projected to increase by one-third in the next four to five years. According to another estimate, water rates in 30 major cities increased 6 percent from 2014 to 2015, and 41 percent since 2010. Assuming similar increases over the next several years, the researchers estimate that between 15 and 36 percent of American households won’t be able to afford water.

Those estimates are a bit crude. For one thing, there just isn’t good data on water consumption and pricing in the United States, and the study’s estimates don’t take into account questions of supply and demand—for example, whether U.S. consumers would finally start using substantially less water if prices actually went up by 41 percent. (Certainly we could get by on a lot less. According to one estimate, we require as little as 400 gallons a month, far less than the EPA estimate of how much we actually use.)

Still, the results are cause for concern, the authors argue. “As water rates rise, and household incomes remain stagnant for the foreseeable future, the results of this nationwide assessment highlight a burgeoning affordability crisis for several states, and providers serving low-income households across the nation,” they write.