Struggling to Serve a Thirsty Public


As utilities across America struggle to afford the repair of aging water infrastructure and climate change impacts water scarcity, the nation’s poor are simultaneously challenged to pay rising water bills. And this ever-expanding economic gap promises to present grave problems within the next decade.

Water rates across the nation are increasing. The price of water increased an average of four percent in 30 large US cities from 2010 to 2017, Circle of Blue recently reported. But in Los Angeles, during the same seven-year period, rates rose by 71%; in San Francisco, they rose about 120%. For families under the poverty line, that can mean spending a large portion of their annual income on water.

Today there is no federal water bill assistance program in place. And according to the US Census Bureau, 14.8% of the US population lived in poverty in 2014. A 2016 EPA review of 795 US utilities found that seven out of 10 did not have a rate assistance program in place for customers.

“We have lifeline rates for electricity, weatherization, even telephones, but we do not have a statewide program that ensures that people have affordable water,” J.R. DeShazo of UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs pointed out to LA Times contributor Michael Hiltzic.

California’s network of fragmented water organizations makes it an especially complex state. There are more than 3,000 different water agencies, many of which are small utilities already challenged to bear the financial impact of infrastructure renewal. For this reason, California policy makers are currently developing a state-run program to support residents receiving water from utilities not offering assistance.

Other states are exploring rate assistance programs as well. Philadelphia recently implemented the nation’s first income-based water rate. The plan ensures that households earning less than 50% of the federal property line will pay no more than 2% of their monthly income on water and wastewater charges. Rates rise in correlation with income. And in Atlanta, voters approved the extension of a 1% sales tax—initially put in place to fund infrastructure repair—to help distribute water costs beyond ratepayers.

For utilities bearing the costs of daily operation, maintenance, regulatory compliance, and long-term capital investments, providing additional economic assistance for low-income customers can seem overwhelming. We’re curious, how is your organization navigating water affordability concerns?WE_bug_web


Do you think state or regionally funded rate support programs are the solution?

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  • Nuggehalli C Vasuki.

    When families and individuals chose to pay hefty cable TV rates and purchase soda and water in bottles, they can easily afford to pay marginally more for water. They can also become careful in using water. Subsidy is not the answer. Local politicians should inform the public that they must pay for the service they need or demand. They pretend the system can survive without periodic rate increases claiming to be real conservatives. Yet people reelect them knowing that they are not telling the truth.

    • Laura S.

      Thank you for sharing your perspectives. I agree that major changes need to take place on a political level. But our thoughts are not aligned with regard to subsidy. When it comes to water conservation, oftentimes economically disadvantaged families have less flexibility in terms of water usage and budget. ie.: If you live in an apartment building with no lawn, usage reduction means less drinking, bathing, and flushing, in contrast to a suburban family that can simply turn off the sprinklers.

    • Nancy K.

      I am uncertain that subsidies are the answer, however, your assumption that people are wasting money on cable TV and bottled water and soda bothers me. Have you ever been poor? Sometimes people have already cut every possible expense and work multiple jobs and are still unable to make ends meet. I have been in that situation. Please don’t blame the individual for their poverty. They may be doing the best they can.

      • I completely agree, Nancy. Thank you so much for sharing your valuable insight.

  • Allen White.

    “WATER”: Since 1980, we have been providing individual designs and systems that allow 45% less water consumption. Our customers are intelligent/ aware people/ agencies who understand that there are limits to all of the planet’s resources and that we have already far surpassed its water limits.
    We now either have to severely limit world population or severely limit water usage or both.
    Trying to find/ supply more water is a monumental exercise in Futility!
    If we find more water, the present human mentality will be to make more humans and create more ways to use it up and contaminate it.
    Al White

    • Laura S.

      Thank you for bringing these points up, Mr. White. Very interesting insights indeed.

  • Edo McGowan.

    Different approaches to teaching and what is being taught (or allowed to be taught), all impact the end result. The dogma of the environment according to whose ethic (assuming any ethics at all)? I’m a pre WW2 product and our cohort was carefully tutored on nutrition based on what industry needed, not what was good for the metabolism. But then, the teachers and school boards also were clueless, merely parroting what came out of industry spin doctors. So————how to get around that? Teaching critical thinking would go a long way.

    Dr Edo McGowan

    Mankind, for all its advances based on a larger brain, has not yet learned to live within its means. It seems that rather than control population numbers well within the scope of its resources, it had generally exceeded them. The numerous classic population crashes recorded throughout history reflect this rather well. But, we are a hopeful species. Yet, in our inability to control ourselves, I suspect that the classic godley ways of population control will remain and continue to function—-wars, famines and plagues. Having spent a fair portion of my working life in assistance to developing countries, I see similar problems cropping up here in the U.S, and in particular in California. In cases, these over-seas experiences have offered ugly, often tragically painful lessons. But often ignored lessons. I wrote the critique for the national watershed program in Rwanda just before it crashed and burned. Basically a response to having exceeded its carrying capacity. Another will likely be Botswana (I wrote its Five-year Water Plan but there were purposefully ignored political realities that could not be faced or reconciled). They are, in instances, living with an expanding population on mined fossil aquifers while giving little thought to impacts on their resource base by inappropriate resource use. But, that’s “over there,” couldn’t happen here, we’re just too smart.

    Being a “hopeful” species, we find it politically impolite to face certain inconvenient truths–use of water being one, and who is or will be using it, and then who is paying for it? We worry about those in a socio-economic cohort who will not be able to pay their water bills. That throws the burden increasingly onto those who can. But, what is being done about the basis of this—the economic disparity? Does it tie in with the “who” that is not finishing schooling and more importantly, why are they not finishing? What becomes of them and their ability to pay something so basic as a water bill?

    Turning back to the lessons of Rwanda, its population was growing at 3.7% or doubling every 19 years. The young and dispossessed were no longer able to farm and support families because there simply was not enough land. Government stepped in to offer hope in the form of technical training, a major part going into the building trades. But, there were, after one finished, few jobs for those anticipating employment. One could finish school with high expectations, but then no jobs. That left one an out—join the military. One was housed, clothed and fed, lived in a barracks, watched the French version of CNN, was told that if one smoked this brand, wore these shoes, drove this car, one was a success and a mate would be obtained along with success. But, that did not happen on military pay, mainly, one thought, because there were too many “Others” and not enough jobs”

    Subsidizing water bills will push the underlying effects of social unrest to some spot in the future but it won’t fix the underlying population driven inequity. It’s an interim politically expedient answer to subsidize, but not a real “fix.”

    Dr Edo McGowan

    • Laura S.

      Thank you, Dr. McGowan. Your comments are ultra-insightful as always.

  • Jonathan McClelland.

    I believe an affluent society should ensure that all of its members have access to basic necessities like clean water, basic health care, and educational opportunities. We are still looking for a way to do that without simultaneously creating a society where people don’t feel that they are obligated to their society to reciprocate by making their best effort to not abuse those basic “rights” by overuse. And to feel some sense of obligation to making the overall system better. There are probably as many “role models” of unsocial behavior in the affluent classes as in the impoverished. So it’s easy to see why an attitude of entitlement takes root, and overwhelms responsibility. Maybe we’ll figure it out in time, maybe not. Maybe if we don’t we’ll get another chance, maybe we’ll put an end to the experiment of “life as we know it” on planet Earth. That depends on just what limiting factor(s) are unleashed to reverse an unsustainable trajectory.

    • Laura S.

      Well said, Mr. McClelland. I’m grateful for your perspective.


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