News Feature | January 31, 2017

Water Projected To Become Unaffordable For A Third Of Americans

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome,

Researchers say water may become unaffordable for one-third of U.S. households in the next five years.

A study published this month 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.

Conservative estimates say the number of U.S. households that cannot afford water will rise from around 12 percent to around 36 percent, according to the study.

“This is a concern due to the cascading economic impacts associated with widespread affordability issues; these issues mean that utility providers could have fewer customers over which to spread the large fixed costs of water service. Unaffordable water bills also impact customers for whom water services are affordable via higher water rates to recover the costs of services that go unpaid by lower income households,” the study said.

Elizabeth Mack, a Michigan State University geographer who worked on the study, alluded to the potential breadth of the fallout.

“The project deals with looking at the economic impacts of rising water prices on both households and regional economies,” she said, per PBS Newshour.

Some of her colleagues were skeptical of the decision to study water affordability.

“When she first pitched the research idea to her colleagues, some scoffed. While water unaffordability is common overseas, Mack said, most assume Americans have the resources and the willingness to do whatever it takes to pay for water,” PBS Newshour reported.

The value of water is of pivotal importance to the water industry. In 2015, the American Water Works Association (AWWA) ranked value-of-water issues among the top concerns of water professionals. Numbers four and five on AWWA's list, respectively, were "public understanding of the value of water systems and services" and "public understanding of the value of water resources."

“The water industry has acted collectively to inform the public of the value of water services and resources for decades. However, while the concepts of safeguarding public health, ensuring customer satisfaction, and protecting the environment are popular, the public (or a vocal minority) frequently does not support the required levels of funding to support safe and reliable water service,” the report said.

For similar stories visit Water Online’s Funding Solutions Center.