News Feature | October 30, 2018

Utilities Called Out For Water Shutoff Policies

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome,

Over a million people lost their water service in recent years due to shutoffs by major providers in a sign of the growing challenge of water affordability.

“Water service was cut off to an estimated 1.4 million people living in more than a half-million American households. They got behind on their bills two years ago, as some struggled to keep up with rising costs and governments didn't do enough to help, a group contends in a first-of-its-kind study,” the Associated Press reported.

The study provides a picture of just how widespread the water shutoff issue is in the U.S, according to the Food & Water Watch, the advocacy group that released the study.

The group requested water shutoff data from the two largest water providers in every state, building the results off the responses of the 73 utilities that returned the survey.

The results broke down areas and communities that are hardest hit by shutoffs.

“It found that among the cities with the highest shut-off rates, where at least 10 percent of residential customers lost their water service for some period of time, were Detroit; New Orleans; Springdale, Arkansas; and Oklahoma's two largest cities, Oklahoma City and Tulsa,” CBS News reported.

“Poor people and cities with large minority populations frequently had higher shut-off rates, the study found. Report author Mary Grant noted that some poor households in New Orleans and Detroit that year paid more than $1,000 for water service, which amounted to about 9 percent of their household incomes,” the report continued.

For consumers, a large chunk of one’s bank account goes to water, according to Grant.

"Nine percent of your income just for your basic water service. That's, by any measure, unaffordable," Grant said.

Nevertheless, the results may not provide a complete picture.

Food & Water Watch stated that investor-owned utilities largely refused to provide the requested data. Of the 11 asked, only one returned the survey.

“Our new survey gives a never-before-seen glimpse into just how bad the water shutoff problem is in America. As bad as it is, the picture likely gets worse — but we won’t know until private utilities are forced to stop hiding the data,” the group stated.

A separate report found that water may become unaffordable for one-third of U.S. households in the next few years.

The report published last year in the journal PLOS ONE mapped the location of high-risk households around the U.S.

“Many of these households are clustered in pockets of water poverty within counties, which is a concern for individual utility providers servicing a large proportion of customers with a financial inability to pay for water services,” the study said.