The Cascading Impacts of High Water Costs

The average monthly water bill for a household in the United States is $120, according to a recent article from PBS Newshour. But that amount could grow by 40% in just the next five years say Michigan State University researchers Elizabeth Mack and Sarah Wrase. The main culprit? Infrastructure replacement costs.

As Americans have spread out across the country, the lengths of pipe needed to service their homes and businesses have grown tremendously. Many cities can't keep pace with the maintenance and replacement costs today. For example, Strong Towns members Michael and Jennifer Smith did an analysis on their town of Rockford, IL and found that 120 miles of pipe were overdue for replacement with a price tag of $200 million. That's way outside the city's budget.

In 2015, we published this simple chart from Urban3 illustrating just how far our water system has been expanded over the last sixty years, based on analysis of Lafayette, LA:

Now let's look at how much the median household income has grown over that same time period in Lafayette:

Rockford and Lafayette are not unique. They are, in fact, quite typical. And with numbers like that, no wonder our cities are struggling to pay maintenance costs.

What's more, the PBS article goes on to explain that some communities are particularly susceptible to growing water costs:

The South, urban centers and low-income communities carry the most risk. For instance, 81 percent of high-risk and 63 percent of at-risk communities are concentrated in urban areas. Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama topped the list with the largest numbers of county subdivisions — or census tracts — facing a high-risk of future water poverty.

We've already seen high-profile water issues impact cities like Flint and Detroit, MI where tens of thousands of residents have lost access to water because they can't afford their bills. This is not only due to infrastructure maintenance costs but also due to the shrinking number of people who are covering those costs. PBS Newshour reports:

Urban flight is another factor in rising water prices. As populations decline in places like Detroit, water utilities are forced to spread their expenses across fewer people, which boosts rates.

The report done by Mack and Wrase at Michigan State University suggests that rising water costs have had and will have cascading impacts on American households. The report's abstract states:

If water rates rise at projected amounts over the next five years, conservative projections estimate that the percentage of U.S. households who will find water bills unaffordable could triple from 11.9% to 35.6%. This is a concern due to the cascading economic impacts associated with widespread affordability issues; these issues mean that utility providers could have fewer customers over which to spread the large fixed costs of water service. Unaffordable water bills also impact customers for whom water services are affordable via higher water rates to recover the costs of services that go unpaid by lower income households.

The Growth Ponzi Scheme that has dominated American development for the last half century must end or we'll find our towns continuing to struggle under the weight of skyrocketing maintenance costs. A year ago, Strong Towns published an essay outlining a creative idea for solving Flint, MI's water crisis. The US will need more innovative thinking like that in order to cut down on its maintenance costs and keep water affordable.

(Top image from 247homerescue)

Related stories