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The Number of US Households That Can’t Afford Water Could Triple in Five Years

Water access is becoming a battleground.
Image: Shutterstock

In the next five years, more households in the US risk being unable to pay for water. If rates keep rising as they're expected to do, the number of households that can't afford water might triple—reaching nearly 36 percent, according to Elizabeth Mack, geography professor at Michigan State University, whose findings are described in PLoS ONE.

"I'm an economic geographer," Mack told me. "The basic question I asked here was, can people afford their water bills?" It seems like a simple enough thing to ask—in North America, each of us uses an average of 100 gallons of water per person per day—yet the US remains understudied when it comes to water access, she told me. Her work, funded by the National Science Foundation, was one of the first nationwide studies of its kind.


What Mack found was troubling. Water rates have gone up 41 percent since 2010. If they continue at that pace, millions of households will struggle to pay.

"This is concerning given the conservative nature of these projections," the paper says, noting that some models predict they'll quadruple over the next 20 years: cities like Austin, Chicago, San Francisco, and Tucson have all seen water rate hikes of over 50 percent in the last five years.

Read More: Abolish Bottled Water

For people who can't pay the bills, it can be disastrous. In Detroit, for example, mass water shutoffs over unpaid bills have cut off 50,000 households since 2014, the paper says. (In some places, "vulnerable populations" like pregnant women and the elderly are protected from having their water turned off, Mack told me, but it varies from place to place.)

Atlanta and Seattle currently lead the way with some of the highest rates in the country, the study says, with a family of four paying about $326 and $310 per month.

Why is water so expensive? There are lots of reasons, from aging infrastructure to shrinking populations in places like Detroit, meaning fewer people to split the costs.

A big one, of course, is climate change—not just because of more severe drought, but the more intense and frequent storms that it brings. "Intense weather events require more infrastructure," she said. Adapting existing systems could cost the US $36 billion by 2050, according to Mack.


Recently, we've seen a growing number of flare-ups over water access, and troubling signs this will become even more of a battleground, as the paper suggests.

In 2016, after residents of Waukesha, Wisconsin found their drinking water was contaminated, they successfully petitioned to take water from the Great Lakes—to the anger of politicians and environmentalists there, who worry that other water-strapped communities will come knocking. In Ontario, locals were furious to learn that Nestlé pays $3.71 for every million litres it extracts, to be bottled and sold for profit.

Then, of course, there's Standing Rock, and the water crisis in Flint. The drought in California. Ongoing boil water advisories on Canada's First Nations communities.

It goes on.

Water is a human right. Yet, based on the findings Mack and co-author Sarah Wrase, more of us will struggle to access this necessity of life in years to come.

Read more of Motherboard's climate change coverage:

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