Dirty Water Doesn’t Come Cheap

A Look At Why Water Bills Are Running Rampant

Along with clean water issues, another water crisis has been brewing for years—costly water bills. Many people pay sky-high rates for water they simply can’t drink.

Having access to clean and affordable water is a human right. Period.

For some communities, it’s an ongoing issue and for others, it’s related to extreme weather or pollution events. Of course, these issues have only gotten worse with the COVID pandemic and economic uncertainty.

Let’s talk numbers.

An estimated 14 million U.S. households struggled to pay their water bills in 2017. A 2020 investigation into household water debt found 1.5 million past-due accounts owing $1.1 billion. Research by The Guardian revealed that water bills surged by almost 30 percent from 2010 to 2018.

Meanwhile, federal assistance to public water utilities has dropped dramatically. Water systems have increasing expenses as they work to address pollution problems, fix old pipes and infrastructure, and prepare for extreme weather events, while revenues continue to plummet.

Excuse my language, but it’s a clusterf*ck.

Troubles in The Golden State

Just last month California announced that 1.6 million households have amassed about $1 billion in water debt since March 2020, according to recent State Water Board survey data. In addition, the average water debt in California is about $500, but 155,000 people owe more than $1,000 on their water bills.

“That’s money not going to small water systems,” said Dr. J. Pablo Ortiz, a climate and water scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, who plans, designs, and carries out analysis on the impact of changing climate patterns in West Coast states.

“I’m not worried about water systems in Los Angeles, San Francisco, or San Diego; they are large enough,” he said. “But there are many small systems that only have a small number of connections. If people cannot afford to pay their water bill and the system is so small they can’t afford to keep operating, it’s a big concern. It didn’t start during the pandemic but it was certainly exasperated by it.”

Just look at a sample of water in the San Joaquin Valley, where he’s done extensive research. Would you pay for that water? I could fill a whole post with dirty water images sent to me from hard-working folks throughout the world.

It’s no surprise that lower-income Black and brown communities have been hit the hardest. Research shows that low-income households use a disproportionate share of their income to pay for water. A 2020 report found that water systems serving the most marginalized communities are more likely to be in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act—and to stay in violation for longer periods of time.

“Safe, sufficient, and affordable water is a human right, but California’s rising cost of living makes it harder for low-income families to pay their water utility bills,” said Linda Escalante, Southern California Legislative Director of the Natural Resources Defense Council in a statement.

California Is Not Alone

Detroit is a city known for water shutoffs. Between 2014 and 2019, the city shut down water to more than 140,000 residents who were delinquent on their bills.

The state of Michigan doesn’t fair much better. More than 315,000 households were behind on their water bills in November 2020, facing the possibility of losing access to their tap water.

State Representative Abraham Aiyash has introduced a bill to permanently ban water shutoffs for those most at risk, including seniors, families with minor children, and people with disabilities or life-threatening medical conditions and make it easier for those to pay their overdue bills.

“Water shutoff moratoriums are only temporary solutions to the long-term issue of water access and affordability,” Aiyash said. “With the statewide moratorium on water shutoffs ending on March 31st, we need to advocate for permanent solutions to water access beyond the current state of emergency. Access to safe, affordable water is a human right as well as a public health priority.”

University of Michigan researchers found that low-income residents in the Detroit Metro area pay about 10 percent of their monthly household income for water services, which is more than double what the EPA estimates as an affordable rate.

Send In The National Guard

Residents in Jackson, Mississippi, have been without water for a week, as extreme winter weather hit the state along with Texas and Louisiana, putting stress on aging pipes and quickly depleting water reserves.

Not only was the city’s water treatment plant knocked offline, but the city's director of public works said they’ve sent crews to fix at least 20 water main breaks. The governor of Mississippi has dispatched the National Guard to help bring water to the city’s 160,000 residents.

High water bills add more stress to disadvantaged communities. I understand that increased costs occur when there’s a leak or plumbing issue, but residents should not be held responsible for 50 years of deferred maintenance from aging water infrastructure. I hope relief comes soon to those in Mississippi.

A Global Issue

Affordability is not just a problem in the U.S., but for utility customers around the world. One study in France found that single-parent families, and particularly female-headed households, were most at risk for affordability issues.  

Plus, many countries subsidize the cost of water and infrastructure through the government or private donors, so customers don’t pay the full rate. If those agreements recede, it could create huge disparities in water access, just as we’ve seen here in the U.S.

Legislatively Speaking

The first law to address the water affordability crisis in the U.S. was signed by California Governor Jerry Brown in 2012. The Human Right to Water bill states, “every human being has the right to safe, clean, affordable, and accessible water adequate for human consumption, cooking, and sanitary purposes.”

Virginia legislators are now working on a similar bill for their state.

Only nine states still have water-shutoff moratoriums.

Those water bills are going to come due,” said Jonathan Nelson, the policy director at the Community Water Center in an interview. “Not only is there no plan for what to do about that crisis of water debt and potential mass water shutoffs next year, but we don’t even know the full scope of the problem.”

Pollution, infrastructure issues, access, affordability—all these issues go together.

We’ve talked a lot about people who can’t afford their water bills, but more than two million Americans live without running water and basic indoor plumbing, and many more without sanitation. Access to clean water is not universal.

Learn More About The Water Gap

Working on Solutions

We talked more with Dr. Pablo in California to get his perspective on how climate change and infrastructure issues are compounding the issue of clean and affordable water for all—and what we can do to make meaningful change.

You can check out his report: Climate Change in the San Joaquin Valley: A Household and Community Guide to Taking Action o, en Español, Cambio climático en el Valle de San Joaquín: Una guía para tomar medidas en el hogar y las comunidades.

“First, we have to talk about what climate change is bringing to California and this includes more extreme precipitation events, increased rainfall and flooding, more precipitation falling as rain rather than snow,” said. “This will reduce the snowpack that we have in the Sierras, and snowpack in California is extremely important because it’s a natural way of restoring water. It melts in the spring, fills our reservoirs, and we use it later in the summer to irrigate our extensive agriculture.”

Dr. Pablo discussed California’s water system in general. Let’s just say, it’s complicated.

“California has a super complex system with 1,300 federal, state, and local reservoirs that are filled with water from precipitation, from snow melt, and from streams and rivers,” he said. “And then, a very complex system of canals, rivers, pipes that distribute that water to almost 40 million residents.”

Dr Pablo said: Climate change is threatening to break the system all together because a lot of our infrastructure is not prepared for the changes that are coming. Right now, many of our institutions are also not prepared to integrate climate change planning in their decision-making.

“Of course, as we have seen with any crisis, this is going to affect our most vulnerable communities in California,” he said.

Climate change is bringing more frequent and longer droughts too. Studies shows that communities extract water without giving the aquifers time to replenish—a process known as over-drafting. Just like when we take too much money out of the bank, it causes a huge deficit and causes other headaches too.

“There’s a link between overdraft and increased concentrations of arsenic,” he explained. “While arsenic may be a naturally occurring heavy metal, the overdraft is certainly not a natural process. This further contaminates the water in many communities that rely on groundwater and that impacts the clean part of the human right to water.”

Many community members rely heavily on bottled water. At the beginning of the COVID pandemic, as many people were hoarding bottled water, it created a big problem in many communities.

“They rely on this bottled water for cooking and for drinking,” he said. “Sometimes it’s a thing we don’t see. People that probably did have water just took it and then people who actually needed it, didn’t have it.”

While only one in 10 Californians lives in the SJV, the valley is home to more than half of the state public water systems that fail to meet water quality standards, hence the need for bottled water. During the drought from 2012 to 2016, many wells went dry, further inhibiting community members’ ability to access clean water. He said many of those wells are still dry today.

“As we lower our groundwater aquifers, we extract more water and it continues to go down, and then there’s a point where the wells can’t reach that level,” he said. “During the drought from 2012-2016, thousands of community wells went dry, and they didn’t have any water, which of course, is even worse than having water contamination. Even if it’s contaminated, you might be able to use it to flush your toilet and if it’s not super contaminated, maybe you can take a shower. If there’s no water, it’s just a horrible feeling.”

Finding Hope

Despite the despair when it comes to climate change and water access issues, Dr. Pablo says he still has hope.

“The more people get organized, make their perspective heard, and raise their voices, then local representatives put more attention on it, which will help grow resources and research,” he said.

He’s been working on a research project with a colleague about the representation of disadvantaged communities, looking at newspaper articles, scientific publications, and legislation.

“What we have been seeing is that disadvantaged communities are overwhelming under-represented,” he said. “I don’t have exact numbers but from millions of articles, only a few talk about disadvantaged communities. Compare that to articles about Lady Gaga, Elon Musk, or Apple. The news media talks so much more about them than about people who don’t have clean water to drink.”

In California, close to 1 million people are without access to clean drinking water.

“This is the richest state in the richest country in the world,” he explained. “It’s happening because it’s not a priority for the state. More can and should be done.”

He says he’s also working to inspire more scientists to do community-based research.

“It’s so important to go into communities and ask questions and really trying to understand their perspective on the challenges,” he said. “Sadly, many times as researchers, we assume that we know the needs and challenges of the community and we develop a project that we think will save them. And then, of course, nothing happens.”

His own community reporting led him to address more than just the water issues.

“My expertise is in water, but when we got to the communities and started interviewing the people, they said, ‘Yes, the water is bad, but air quality is horrible, there are no sidewalks, there are no parks, no street lights, education is bad, public transportation is non-existent or unreliable, so many things…’ It didn’t feel right to focus only on water.”

This is why I aways say, “Listen to the people!”