As a lead organizer with the Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative, a nonprofit focused on housing in New Orleans, Frank Southall hears about families having their tap water shut off by the local water utility on a daily basis.
“The cost of housing has skyrocketed with the cost of water, and you need both to live, so when they collide and become more expensive, people have to choose between one and the other,” Southall told Truthout.
New Orleans is not alone. Despite a low unemployment rate and the rosy picture some politicians paint about the economy, the US is facing a water affordability crisis, according to a new study by the watchdog group Food and Water Watch. The problem is particularly widespread in Louisiana, Florida, Oklahoma and other Southern states, as well as in cities with large populations of low-income people of color.
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After requesting shutoff data from public utilities in cities across the country (private providers refused to share their data), researchers found that the average water utility shut off water service for 1 in 20 households due to unpaid bills in 2016. In 15 cities, shutoff rates reached 10 percent, which means that one in 10 households lost access to tap water for at least part of 2016.
More than 500,000 households lost water service due to nonpayment in the cities examined, and these shutoffs impacted access to a basic necessity for about 1.4 million people. Based on these findings, researchers estimate that 15 million people nationwide experienced a water shutoff in 2016.
Mary Grant, Food and Water Watch’s Public Water for All campaign director, said these numbers demand that both local and federal officials take emergency action.
“Water affordability is a deepening crisis across the country,” Grant said on a call with reporters. “Water shutoffs are one of the clearest signs of that crisis, but no government agency currently tracks the status.”
Unaffordable water bills can take a serious toll on low-income families and force them to choose between running water and other necessities, according to Food and Water Watch and advocates like Southhall. A tap water shutoff has immediate impacts on health and sanitation and can make homes uninhabitable, forcing families to move. Lack of running water is considered neglect in 21 states, and children can be taken from their parents under child protection laws when water becomes unaffordable, according to the report.
Grant said low-income families also shoulder a disproportionate burden when utilities raise rates. Low-income families tend to spend a higher percentage of their income on utilities, and are more likely to have large families living in one household.
“Low-income families and poor families pay a disproportionate amount of their income [for] water and sewer bills, and that’s just how it’s set up,” Grant said in an interview.
Part of the water affordability problem can be traced to declining federal investment in water infrastructure, which has fallen 74 percent since its peak in 1977, according to the report. At the same time, water and sewer systems have deteriorated due to age, forcing local governments and utilities to raise rates in order to fix pipes and maintain service. This has resulted in a 40 percent increase in water and sewer rates for average households from 2008 to 2014.
“And this is all compounded by a drop in real household income,” said Food and Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah Hauter, in a press conference. “Meanwhile, income inequality is continuing to widen, and some local governments are choosing to exercise regressive water billing practices that burden low-income households.”
Water usage rates and billing policies vary widely between local governments and their utilities. Some refrain from cutting off water access and charging poor families more than a small percentage of their income — but many do not. The survey did not find a direct association between socioeconomic factors and shutoff rates nationwide, but when cities with high shutoff rates were compared to those with low shutoff rates, it became clear that cities with high unemployment and large populations of low-income people of color are hardest hit by the water affordability crisis.
In majority-Black cities, low-income residents spent an average of 7 percent of their household income on water bills. In majority-white cities, low-income residents only spent 3 percent of their household income on tap water. These numbers reflect earlier research that found higher utility costs in communities where people of color are in the majority, according to the report.
New Orleans and Detroit, two cities with large and historic Black communities, stood out in the data. A typical household’s annual water bill can reach $1,000 in both cities, and a low-income family in New Orleans and Detroit spent an average of 9 and 10 percent of their income on water in 2016, respectively. Southall said water affordability in New Orleans intersects with a number of housing issues in a city that has experienced both rapid gentrification and recovery from natural disasters.
“It’s more complex than people not paying bills,” Southall said. “Sometimes it’s about the landlord not paying their bills when they [agree to] pay for the water, which forces people into crises between paying their water or their rent.”
The city’s water woes are a frequent topic of conversation in New Orleans, where parade floats mocking city officials and the scandals surrounding the local sewerage and water board are now a common sight during Mardi Gras. The city is struggling to update an aging emergency drainage system that has left entire neighborhoods under water in recent years (including your faithful reporter’s), and thousands of people are currently contesting water bills. Alerts that require residents to boil drinking water in case of bacterial contamination are not unusual.
In need of cash, the New Orleans water board recently ended a moratorium on water shutoffs for households that are unable to pay. Local activists have accused the city of mismanaging funds and gouging working families to make up the difference, while the city says it is owed millions of dollars in unpaid bills. Grant said that as long as ratepayers are responsible for paying the cost of updating infrastructure, low-income households carry the most financial burden.
Grant said New Orleans is a good example of a city that could use some federal assistance, but rural and urban communities across the country are in need as well. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the nation’s water and sewer systems require about $744 billion in funding over the next 20 years, according to the report. However, President Trump has failed to propose a workable infrastructure investment plan, and along with the Republican-controlled Congress, dashed hopes for large public investment by passing a large tax cut, largely for the businesses and the wealthy.
Grant said Congress could address this problem by passing the Water Affordability, Transparency, Equity, and Reliability Act of 2017, which is sponsored by Democrats. The bill would roll back a portion of the 2017 tax cuts for corporations and use the extra income to fund drinking water programs and upgrades to sewer and well systems. It would also establish a grant program for well water and septic systems in rural areas.
“Just a small portion of those corporate tax cuts would fully fund our water and sewer systems,” Grant said.