A Burgeoning Crisis? A Nationwide Assessment of the Geography of Water Affordability in the United States

Source: Elizabeth A. Mack, Sarah Wrase, PLOS, Published: January 11, 2017

While basic access to clean water is critical, another important issue is the affordability of water access for people around the globe. Prior international work has highlighted that a large proportion of consumers could not afford water if priced at full cost recovery levels. Given growing concern about affordability issues due to rising water rates, and a comparative lack of work on affordability in the developed world, as compared to the developing world, more work is needed in developed countries to understand the extent of this issue in terms of the number of households and persons impacted. To address this need, this paper assesses potential affordability issues for households in the United States using the U.S. EPA’s 4.5% affordability criteria for combined water and wastewater services. Analytical results from this paper highlight high-risk and at-risk households for water poverty or unaffordable water services. 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. Results also highlight that while water rates remain comparatively affordable for many U.S. households, this trend will not continue in the future. If water rates rise at projected amounts over the next five years, conservative projections estimate that the percentage of U.S. households who will find water bills unaffordable could triple from 11.9% to 35.6%. 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.

Related:
Press release

The climbing cost of water
Source: LaShell Stratton-Childers, Water Environment & Technology (WE&T) Magazine, Volume 29 Number 5, May 2017
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Michigan State researchers predict that water will no longer be affordable for as many as a third of American households.