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MSU researchers: Water could be unaffordable for more than 35% of U.S. households in 5 years

Water faucet
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Lack of funds threaten to shut down a monitoring system for southeast Michigan's drinking water.

In just five years, more than 35% of American households could find themselves unable to afford water bills.

That’s the startling conclusion of a new study from Michigan State University.

“There are a lot of reasons” that water and sewer bills are going up nationwide, says Elizabeth Mack, an assistant professor of geography and the study’s lead author. They include the cost of aging infrastructure, climate change-related weather extremes, and declining populations in some city centers, leaving fewer people to shoulder the burden of rising costs.

Mack says the general public may not be aware of the price shock that’s likely coming—but utilities are.

“If you talk to utility providers, they want to provide people with water, and they want people to have clean water,” Mack said. “But their ability to do this at affordable rates is obviously being taxed by all these pressures on their systems.”

The study uses a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency guideline of no more than 4.5% of monthly household income to gauge “water affordability.” Currently, the researchers estimate just under 12% of U.S. households find it hard to pay water bills.

“Once water and sewer bills exceed that level, households are forced to make tradeoffs, and “If you’re in a lower income household, your ability to make these tradeoffs is slim to none,” says Mack.

Mack cautions the study is based on national averages, and rates vary widely at the local level. But she says it also uses “fairly conservative” projections of likely rate increases.

“Prices could go higher if cities look to private providers for water services, who have a tendency to charge higher rates than public providers,” the paper’s authors write. “These pressures on water systems, combined with the fact that water is a vital necessity to sustain life, place this issue at the forefront of 21st century infrastructure challenges.

Mack says that finding ways to provide ways to provide public water services, without overburdening those who can’t pay, is something that communities, utilities, and policymakers need to figure out. “It’s in everyone’s best interest for there to be a lot of people that can afford their water,” she said. “Otherwise things become more grim.”

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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