What do you do when you don’t have any water to wash, cook, or clean with? Fifteen million Americans faced that problem in 2016 when they fell behind on their water bills and had their water shut off.
In many communities across the U.S., water is becoming increasingly unaffordable. Rising utility costs force families to choose between it and other essentials, like food, housing, and electricity. In Detroit and New Orleans, a typical water bill can run nearly $1,000 a year, beyond the budgets of low-income households already struggling to make ends meet.
A national survey of major water providers in every state conducted by Food & Water Watch, a nonprofit organization focused on advocating for clean water and healthy food systems, found that 5 percent of residential customers had their water shut off in 2016, totaling more than half a million households and affecting an estimated 1.4 million people.  The highest shut-off rates took place in cities with high rates of poverty and unemployment. Based on these findings, Food & Water Watch estimated that water was shut off to 15 million people across the U.S. in 2016.
The problem with water access doesn’t just stop at water affordability. In 2015, the same year that the water crisis in Flint, Michigan made headlines, more than 21 million people nationwide relied on water systems that violated basic health standards, according to a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Throughout the country, low-income communities disproportionately bear the brunt of this crisis. In California, drinking water contamination is most likely to affect small, low-income communities of color, particularly migrant farmworker communities that have not benefitted from the rapid economic growth experienced by urban centers like L.A. and the San Francisco Bay Area.
These issues are a result of decades of federal underinvestment in water infrastructure, and they have only been exacerbated by the inequities that drive the growing wealth and income inequality in the U.S. As the federal government cuts back on funding and support for municipal water and sewage systems, cities have been forced to maintain them with their own resources as infrastructure deteriorates. Federal funding for water and sewage systems has fallen by 74 percent since its peak in 1977.
This problem will only get worse. Without any meaningful interventions on the federal level, cities like Detroit and New Orleans will continue to raise rates that are already unaffordable for low-income households to maintain the critical water and sewage systems that support their communities. One study by Michigan State University found that if water rates continue to rise as projected, nearly 36 percent of Americans will be unable to pay their water bills by 2022.
There are solutions to this problem. Local governments can develop affordability programs that cap the amount providers can charge low-income consumers based on their ability to pay. Philadelphia, where more than 40 percent of the city’s water utility customers are delinquent, adopted such a program in 2017. However, federal policies that adequately fund public water are essential in addressing both the water infrastructure and water affordability crises. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that, in total, the U.S.’s drinking water and wastewater systems need at least $744 billion in investments over the next 20 years. Funding must be allocated to make much-needed repairs and improvements to these vital systems. Water access and affordability is a national problem, and we need a federal commitment to ensure that no household in America goes without safe, clean, and affordable water.
 Food & Water Watch, America’s Secret Water Crisis: National Shutoff Survey Reveals Water Affordability Emergency Affecting Millions (https://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/sites/default/files/rpt_1810_watershutoffs-web2.pdf) (Oct. 22, 2018).
 Allaire, Maura, Haowei Wu, and Upmanu Lall. “National trends in drinking water quality violations.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 115.9 (2018): 2078-2083.
 Food & Water Watch, Water. Jobs. Justice. (https://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/sites/default/files/fs_1704_water_jobs-web.pdf) (Apr. 2017)
 Henion, Andy, Affordable Water in the US: A Burgeoning Crisis, MSU Today (https://msutoday.msu.edu/news/2017/affordable-water-in-the-us-a-burgeoning-crisis/) (Jan. 11, 2017)
 Wogan, J.B., The Cost of Water Is Rising. Philadelphia Has an Unprecedented Plan to Make It More Affordable, Governing (https://www.governing.com/topics/transportation-infrastructure/gov-philadelphia-income-based-water-bills.html) (Jul. 5, 2017)
 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, EPA’s 6th Drinking Water Infrastructure Needs Survey and Assessment (https://www.epa.gov/drinkingwatersrf/epas-6th-drinking-water-infrastructure-needs-survey-and-assessment) (Mar. 2018)
 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Clean Watersheds Needs Survey (https://www.epa.gov/cwns)
6 thoughts on “Water Access and Social Justice in the United States”
It’s interesting that water infrastructure spending has fallen so much. What were the circumstances in 1977? I think it may be more interesting and economically viable to develop new, cheaper technologies than create affordability programs.
Great blog! This is clearly an important social justice issue!
I find it most curious that so little is done when water infrastructure fails. Are we okay with letting our water infrastructure deteriorate? Will we just switch to bottled water for everything? This has already happened in other countries.
Great article Ake! The access to clean and safe water is perhaps one of the most basic rights we have as humans, and is a growing problem in the field of environmental justice. I would be interested in discerning the reasons behind the lack of investment federally in drinking water programs. Perhaps the introduction of neoliberalism and the cut in government spending that it entailed under the Reagan administration was the source of this decades-long divestment. For whatever reason, I definitely think that this problem needs to be addressed for all the reasons you brought up, but it unfortunately may not until more fortunate and well represented communities are affected by it. Interested to see how this problem unfolds in the next few years!
I think this is a good overview of water issues in the US. I think though there are lots of complicated factors even in tackling this problem on a local level. For one, there is the issue of incorporated versus unincorporated area surrounding cities. Unincorporated areas have little access to support from nearby cities and towns. Because of their legal structures, they do not have local seats of government, and often do not have their own charters or legal documents like cities do. I think this adds another dimension that makes it difficult for local governments alone to tackle a big problem like water accessibility. I agree with you that some type of federal support should be put into place, either through new regulations or legislation.
Thanks for this insight, Ake! I also think that access to quality drinking water is a huge issue for the United States domestically that is often overlooked. When public utility infrastructure fails, as it has in many municipalities recently, there often arises a question of who should have to pay the cost. Usually, citizens have already been paying more for their water because of the inefficient production system — should they now be responsible for paying for a new system, through increased taxes? Case studies like that in Flint, Michigan, show how infrastructure crises can be largely framed and influenced by the role of the media. Although the small city continues to face a lack of access to quality drinking water, there seems to be no positive outcome in the near future. I appreciated the policy examples you provided, such as a staggered tax for infrastructure improvements, placing a heavier emphasis on those who can afford to pay. This is a public good that everyone in the municipality can benefit from, so it should be paid for in a progressive way.