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Is Clean Water Becoming Unaffordable in the US?

If the cost of water continues to rise at the projected rate, the number of households that will not be able to afford water is likely to triple to around 36% within the next five years, a new study that focused on water affordability has revealed.

According to the study, which was recently published in the scientific journal PLoS ONE, various factors, including climate change, aging infrastructure, and a decline in population numbers in urban areas, have led to resident's inability to afford the cost of water and wastewater service delivery becoming a growing crisis.

"In cities across the United States, water affordability is becoming an increasingly critical issue," said Elizabeth Mack, an assistant geography professor at Michigan State University, who analyzed water consumption, pricing and demographic and socioeconomic data for the study.

The US Environmental Protection Agency suggests that households should spend no more than 4.5% of their total income on water and wastewater services. With that being said, around 13.8 million households across the United States (nearly 12% of American households) may soon be unable to afford to pay their water bill, with poor families being hit the hardest, said Mack.

This map includes "high-risk tracts" (in black), which are areas with high concentrations of families with incomes below $32,000 that currently cannot afford water bills. The "at-risk tracts" (in gray) are areas with high concentrations of families with incomes between $32,000 and $45,120 that are at-risk of being unable to afford rising water rates in the near future. This map includes "high-risk tracts" (in black), which are areas with high concentrations of families with incomes below $32,000 that currently cannot afford water bills. The "at-risk tracts" (in gray) are areas with high concentrations of families with incomes between $32,000 and $45,120 that are at-risk of being unable to afford rising water rates in the near future.

According to the study, the states with the highest concentrations of families who earn less than $32,000 and who struggle to pay their water bills lie predominantly in the south, with Mississippi topping the list, although Ohio is ranked 9th and Michigan 12th on the list.

Furthermore, the cost of water has increased by 41% since 2010, and should this trend continue at the same pace, it is estimated that five years from now the number of residents that will be unable to pay their water bills could soar to over 40 million, affecting more than a third of all American households.

Aging infrastructure is a key driving factor in the escalating cost of water. It is estimated that the cost to replace antiquated water systems across the country will be over $1 trillion during the course of the next 25 years, and these costs need to be recouped from water users.

Climate change is another key factor, as more severe weather and storm events necessitate improvements to wastewater treatment facilities in order to adapt. It is estimated that these infrastructural developments will cost over $36 billion by 2050.

Furthermore, declining populations in large urban areas such as Philadelphia and Detroit mean that there are fewer people to share the huge costs associated with supplying water to households, further adding to the crisis. In Philadelphia, around 227,000 households (4 out of every 10 customers) have overdue water accounts, while in Detroit, 50,000 homes have had their water cut off due to non-payment since the beginning of 2014. In Seattle and Atlanta, a household consisting of 4 people typically forks out over $300 every month for their water and wastewater service.

Ultimately, the study concludes, everyone concerned — including the government, water utilities and water consumers — will need to try and work together to address the burgeoning crisis of water affordability in the country.

"Water is a fundamental right for all humans. However, a growing number of people in the United States and globally face daily barriers to accessing clean, affordable water," explains Mack, noting that the issue of water affordability in the US is relatively unstudied compared to other countries.

"The hope is that enhanced awareness of this issue in the developed world will highlight the severity of the issue, which is not isolated to people in the developing world," Mack said.

Journal Reference:

Mack EA, Wrase S (2017) A Burgeoning Crisis? A Nationwide Assessment of the Geography of Water Affordability in the United States. PLoS ONE 12(1): e0169488. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0169488

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