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article imageAffordable water may become a thing of the past in the U.S.

By Karen Graham     Jan 31, 2017 in Environment
If water rates continue to rise as they have been projected to do, the number of households in the U.S. unable to afford water will increase threefold in the next five years, to nearly 36 percent.
Many people take our access to water for granted. After all, it's available with the turn of a faucet, at a drinking fountain or in a disposable plastic bottle for a price. But a study by Michigan State University researchers has found that several factors could put the affordability of this resource out of the reach of one-in-three Americans.
Elizabeth Mack, an MSU geographer who led the research said that while water unaffordability is common in many other countries around the world, people assume that in America, we have the resources and the willingness to pay for water, whatever the costs, reports
Syrians walk past a poster of President Bashar al-Assad as they go to fill plastic containers with w...
Syrians walk past a poster of President Bashar al-Assad as they go to fill plastic containers with water at a public fountain in the capital Damascus
But keep this number in mind — The average monthly water bill in the United States is $120 for 12,000 gallons per month. According to the study, that price will rise by $49 by 2022.
“In cities across the United States, water affordability is becoming an increasingly critical issue,” said Mack, who analyzed water consumption, pricing and demographic and socioeconomic data for the study published in the journal PLOS One this month.
Environmental Protection Agency EPA guidelines say that spending on water and wastewater services combined should make up no more than 4.5 percent of household income. But based on this criteria, 13.8 million U.S. households (or 11.9 percent of all households) may find water bills unaffordable.
Map of communities most at risk for water poverty.
Map of communities most at risk for water poverty.
Image by Mack EA and Wrase S
The EPA's benchmark of 4.5 percent is based on an average household's income being $32,000 annually. That may sound good, but 51 percent of the population makes less than $30,000 a year, so paying the water bill has become quite a challenge.
Since 2010, just six years ago, water prices have increased by 41 percent in 30 major cities, and if these prices continue on an upward spiral, by 2022, the number of households unable to afford water and wastewater prices will soar to around 40.9 million, or 35.6 percent of all households.
Seeker is reporting that in Detroit, Michigan, 50,000 people have lost water access since 2014, and in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 40 percent of water bills are overdue.
Based on MSU's research using surveys and water utility reports, when household allocations for water go over 4.5 percent of income, households are forced to reallocate funds that would be used to pay other monthly bills.
A water main break.
A water main break.
Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission
Factors influencing the affordability of water
"Infrastructure is the main contributor to water price surges," says Mack. And while Flint, Michigan is one of the most notable examples of a failing infrastructure, other U.S. cities are starting to face similar problems. In many cities, especially on the East Coast, there are water pipes dating back to before the Civil War. Those pipes have far outlasted their useful age and are breaking down.
A lack of precipitation also poses challenges to water affordability and access to the resource. A good example of this problem is the long drought California has been dealing with. And this brings us to the sustainability of this resource. Californians have been forced to learn how to save and reuse water when it is scarce.
Mack has this to say about the scarcity of water: "Right now water is not priced as a scarce resource. Pricing for scarcity has not yet entered the conversation on a broad scale, unfortunately, nor have widespread efforts to help households adopt water-saving fixtures and appliances."
Blue-green algae in waters of Lake Erie
Blue-green algae in waters of Lake Erie
There is one other factor that is going to affect the affordability and access to drinking water, and that is climate change. We have already experienced cases where public water sources have been contaminated by toxic algae getting into our water, and these events are increasing, forcing utilities to issue warnings and supply bottled water to households.
“Water is a fundamental right for all humans,” Mack said. “However, a growing number of people in the United States and globally face daily barriers to accessing clean, affordable water.”
More about Drinking water, onethird of Americans, failing infrastructure, scarcity of a resource, Affordable
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