The year 2022 has been called the summer of deadly flooding. Since the start of the year, we have seen 13 incidents of extreme rainfall and flooding from Alabama to Alaska and communities in between. 2022 has also been the summer of devastating drought. By mid-October, nearly 53% of the US was in drought, affecting 321.6 million acres of US crops and countless private wells.
The impact of increasingly disruptive climate events throughout this year, such as drought, intense rainfall, and flooding, is devastating for our country. While drought threatens source waters, flooding can overwhelm environments and our water infrastructure—many of which were designed or built more than 100 years ago under very different climate conditions. We have underinvested in our infrastructure for more than 45 years, further increasing the pressure on our water systems.
The confluence of climate and infrastructure issues have created water crises for people living in communities like Jackson, Mississippi; Broward County, Georgia; Benton Harbor, Michigan; Las Vegas, New Mexico; Kentucky; Alabama, and many others. However, we are seeing more than a single water crisis during a single summer; we are witnessing a systemic failure to effectively prepare for and address our water infrastructure and water equity needs.
People across our country have experienced water stress long before this devastating summer and fall. According to a pre-pandemic report from the US Water Alliance and DigDeep, more than two million individuals nationwide live without access to adequate drinking water or sanitation. Native Americans are 19 times more likely to have experienced a lack of access than white people. And Black, Hispanic, Latino, low-income, and rural communities are also more likely to experience this lack of water and sanitation than white and affluent communities.
More than two million individuals nationwide live without access to adequate drinking water or sanitation
Water access is essential to public health, well-being, and dignity. Due to insufficient federal and state funding, the water utility sector has relied on a business model that hinges on local customers’ ability to pay for services. Water investments by the federal and state governments are low relative to investments in transportation, ports, and other types of infrastructure. This model renders the sector, infrastructure, and customers vulnerable to economic distress and shocks. Water rates continue to rise to cover the growing costs of operations, maintenance, and needed infrastructure investments, with individuals bearing the costs of those increases. As a result, water bills can quickly become unaffordable for low-income households.
According to a Georgia Tech study, in 2020, approximately 14% of US households faced water affordability issues, with low-income households spending upwards of 8.1% of their annual income on water and sewer services on average. Current inflation rates continue to exacerbate this crisis, with nearly one-third of respondents from an American Water Works Association study citing that they struggled to pay their water bill on time, an 8% increase from June 2021. The study also revealed that over half of Black adults (57%) and Hispanic adults (53%) struggle to pay their utility bills on time, while only four-in-ten white adults (40%) struggle to pay their utility bills on time.
When water bills cannot be paid, many utilities employ a longstanding practice of incentivizing payment by shutting off access to water. Using water shutoffs for low-income residents reinforces the idea that denying access to a life-sustaining resource is a reasonable response to poverty and has a subsequent negative and lasting impact on communities.
The extent and negative impact of water shutoffs is now evident for the first time in a new report from the US Water Alliance. In eight communities across the country, the US Water Alliance worked closely with water utilities and community-based organizations to begin to understand how widespread shutoffs occur, how and when they are applied, and the impact they have on families.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, some water utilities had as many as 40,000 unpaid accounts. The average ranged from $200 to almost $2,000—debts much higher than what low-income households can realistically pay back. Some shutoffs last 24 hours, while others extend to seven days or more. One city found that shutoff times were four times longer in majority Black communities than in majority white census tracts. Low-income households are also more likely to experience longer and repeated shutoffs, suggesting an ongoing inability to pay.
Despite the significant challenges in front of us, this report demonstrates that innovative solutions that invest in communities will make it possible to end the practice of water shutoffs for low-income households.
We must work directly with those impacted by water stress and find creative solutions to address customer debt and adopt rates that ensure affordability. By approaching customer services compassionately, delivering accessible assistance programs, and finding new ways to partner with their customers, water utilities will better understand community needs and design appropriate and effective solutions.
The extent and negative impact of water shutoffs is now evident for the first time in a new report from the US Water Alliance
We also need greater federal investment in our water infrastructure. Not only will this address the needs of low-income residents and our nation’s aging water systems, but it will also spark greater job creation and economic growth. This investment will also further protect our environment and public health while improving the overall quality of life for families nationwide.
On the anniversary of the historic Infrastructure Investment Jobs Act’s funding for drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater systems, we are on the precipice of lifesaving and life enhancing change. It’s something felt across the water sector, evidenced in the energy and efforts of utilities, community organizations, NGOs, service providers, and state and federal policymakers. We are experiencing a shift from hope to action, from dreaming to building, and from isolation to collaboration.
We are seeing water in all its forms increasingly valued and understood as being intimately tied to all our ways of life. Shepherding our water equitably and holistically can lead us to sustainable living. More than ever, what we invest reveals not just our values but our ability to thrive.
Join us in ushering in a new era where utilities, communities, and policymakers work together to ensure affordable, equitable, and sustainable water for all.