Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

tap water

The Guardian and Consumer Reports on Tuesday launched a new series titled America's Water Crisis. (Photo: Steve Johnson/flickr/cc)

'A Water Emergency Threatens Every Corner of Our Country': Analysis Shows 80% Spike in US Utility Bills Over 8 Years

"Let us go forward together, and demand that Congress finally make the necessary investments in clean water for all Americans, putting human lives ahead of corporate profits."

Jessica Corbett

A report about 12 U.S. cities published Tuesday in the Guardian sheds light on a water affordability crisis in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, which has forced millions of Americans out of work, underscoring the importance of universal access to water and sanitation and provoking demands for both a moratorium on utility shutoffs and broader reforms.

"The scale of this crisis demands nothing short of a fundamental transformation of our water systems."
—Mary Grant of Food & Water Watch

Across all the cities studied, the total cost of water and sewage rose by an average of 80% between 2010 and 2018, according to an analysis commissioned by the newspaper and conducted by economist and utilities expert Roger Colton.

From city to city, during that period, water bills rose by between 27% and 154%, Colton found. That spike, the Guardian noted, has come as "federal aid to public water utilities, which serve around 87% of people, has plummeted while maintenance, environmental and health threats, climate shocks, and other expenditures have skyrocketed."

The research reveals that "more people are in trouble, and the poorest of the poor are in big trouble," said Colton. "The data shows that we've got an affordability problem in an overwhelming number of cities nationwide that didn't exist a decade ago, or even two or three years ago in some cities."

The number of people living in neighborhoods with unaffordable water bills could significantly increase by 2030

Colton's 88-page analysis represents "the first nationwide research of its kind," according to the newspaper. His findings elicited new calls for reforms at the federal level.

"A water emergency threatens every corner of our country," Mary Grant of the advocacy group Food & Water Watch told the Guardian in response to the research. "The scale of this crisis demands nothing short of a fundamental transformation of our water systems. Water should never be treated as commodity or a luxury for the benefit of the wealthy."

Over the next decade, the analysis projects, conditions could get even worse. In 2018, nearly three-quarters of low-income Santa Fe residents lived in neighborhoods with unaffordable water bills; by 2030, it could be 99%. The figures were similar for New Orleans: 79% of poor residents lived in neighborhoods with unaffordable bills in 2018 and that could rise to 93%.

In New Orleans, "the water department has one of the county's harshest shutoff program, disconnecting almost one in five households in 2016," the Guardian reported. While the pandemic prompted hundreds of communities and several states to enact moratoriums on shutoffs, standards and timelines have varied, according to a Food & Water Action database.

The coronavirus-related moratorium on water disconnections enacted in New Orleans is set to expire on July 20. The Louisiana city, Colton concluded, "is in the worst shape of the 12 cities studied." In addition to Santa Fe, the other cities analyzed were Austin, Cleveland, Charlotte, Fresno, Indianapolis, Philadelphia, San Diego, San Jose, Seattle, and Tucson.

The report on Colton's analysis is a part of a one-year series entitled America's Water Crisis, launched Tuesday by the Guardian and the advocacy group Consumer Reports. The series "will investigate the links between America's water crisis and inequality, poverty, and pollution," as well as track related federal legislation and use volunteers to test water quality in systems across the country.

"In addition to reporting on access to running water, the hidden crisis of affordability and widespread issue of water contamination, we are also going to investigate the billion-dollar bottled water industry," Guardian U.S. editor John Mulholland explained in a op-ed Tuesday. "Many of these large firms plunder public water sources at low cost and then make unconscionable profits selling bottled water—sometimes to people whose public supply is contaminated."

As part of the series launch, the newspaper also published an op-ed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.), lead sponsors of the Water Affordability, Transparency, Equity, and Reliability (WATER) Act (S. 611/ H.R. 1417) introduced in February 2019. The bill, which would create a $35 billion trust fund to improve water infrastructure nationwide, is endorsed by dozens of organizations including Consumer Reports.

In the op-ed, the Sanders and Lawrence made a case for the WATER Act, which prioritizes disadvantaged communities and would provide grants to repair water infrastructure, replace lead service lines, filter toxins out of drinking water, and help families upgrade household wells and septic systems. There are also provisions to "hold utility companies accountable for engaging in service shutoffs, discrimination, and civil rights violations" and address water problems in schools.

"Now, as America battles an unprecedented public health crisis, we can no longer continue along a course in which companies have been allowed to buy up, privatize, and profit off a basic human right," they argued, referencing the ongoing pandemic. "The solution is not more privatization—it is for Congress to end decades of neglect and immediately invest billions into our public water systems so that we can finally guarantee clean drinking water to everybody."

"Given the enormity of this crisis, and how the right to clean water is essential to an effective pandemic response, a comprehensive relief bill must include the WATER Act," Sanders and Lawrence concluded. "Let us go forward together, and demand that Congress finally make the necessary investments in clean water for all Americans, putting human lives ahead of corporate profits. Our most vulnerable communities depend on it."

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

Because of people like you, another world is possible. There are many battles to be won, but we will battle them together—all of us. Common Dreams is not your normal news site. We don't survive on clicks. We don't want advertising dollars. We want the world to be a better place. But we can't do it alone. It doesn't work that way. We need you. If you can help today—because every gift of every size matters—please do. Without Your Support We Simply Don't Exist.

'I Had a Duty of Care': Doctor Praised for Violating Texas' New Abortion Ban

"I hope the law gets overturned," Dr. Alan Braid said, "and if this is what does it, that would be great."

Jessica Corbett ·

'Infuriating Disappointment': Biden DHS Ramping Up Deportations to Haiti

"It is unconscionable for the Biden administration to resume deportation flights to Haiti, despite the country's ongoing political, economic, and environmental disasters."

Jessica Corbett ·

Architect of Texas Abortion Ban Takes Aim at LGBTQ+ Rights While Urging Reversal of Roe

"Make no mistake, the goal is to force extreme, outdated, religious-driven values on all of us through the courts."

Jessica Corbett ·

Ahead of Canadian Election, Bernie Sanders and Rashida Tlaib Endorse NDP

"Bernie, you have fought courageously for public healthcare, affordable medication, making the rich pay their fair share, and tackling the climate crisis," said party leader Jagmeet Singh. "We're doing the same here."

Jessica Corbett ·

US Urged to End Drone Strikes After Pentagon Says Killing 10 Afghan Civilians Was 'Horrible Mistake'

"That was not a 'mistake,'" said journalist Anand Giridharadas. "War crimes are not oopsies."

Brett Wilkins ·

Support our work.

We are independent, non-profit, advertising-free and 100% reader supported.

Subscribe to our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values.
Direct to your inbox.

Subscribe to our Newsletter.

Common Dreams, Inc. Founded 1997. Registered 501(c3) Non-Profit | Privacy Policy
Common Dreams Logo