A Third of Americans Won’t Be Able to Afford Water in Five Years

We tend to think about access to water as an issue that only affects developing countries, but that’s far from the case.

Jan 13 2017, 6:44pm

Image: Eva Gullon/Getty Images

Here's something to add to your list of horrifying future possibilities: not being able to afford clean water. A new study published in PLOS one suggests that a third of Americans will be priced out of water service within five years.

Researchers from Michigan State University looked at water consumption and pricing as well as socioeconomic data. Then they compared those stats to the Environmental Protection Agency's recommendation that people spend no more than 4.5 percent of household income on water and wastewater services. By these metrics, about 13.8 million US households (about 11.9 percent) currently might find their water bills unaffordable. But it gets worse: They determined that, if water prices keep rising at the same rate over the next five years, the number will almost triple to 40.9 million households, or 35.6 percent. The researchers note that increased unaffordability for some could end up increasing costs for all: If enough people end up getting their water shut off, the cost will rise for everyone who remains customers.

The cost of water service has gone up 41 percent since 2010. The researchers noted several factors contributing to the increase, including the replacement of aging water infrastructure, climate change, and shrinking city populations, which leave fewer people to split the fixed costs of water service.

This paper is one of the first nationwide investigations of water affordability and comes a year after the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. The city stopped buying its water from Detroit in 2013 to save money, and in April 2014 it started using water from the Flint River, which leached lead from old piping.

We tend to think about access to water as an issue that only affects developing countries, but that's far from the case, study author Elizabeth Mack, a geography professor at Michigan State University, said in a press release. To take two examples, four out of ten water accounts in Philadelphia were past due, and 50,000 customers in Detroit have had their water service shut off since the start of 2014. "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.