Amid the flood of rising prices lately, here’s one you might not have expected: the cost of tap water.
“Water used to be the cheapest bill you had,” says Barry Swift, 70, a retired nurse in Des Moines, Iowa. “Now it’s just higher than heck.” Smith recently fell behind on his $150 monthly water bill and faced a shutoff.
In 2022, the average monthly water and sewage bill was about $118, according to Bluefield Research, a Boston utility research firm. That’s up 51 percent since 2012, more than double the rate of inflation over that period.
What’s driving the increases?
One factor is geographic differences; there are more than 148,000 independent public water systems in America, each with its own issues and circumstances. But upkeep of aging systems and reduced government funding are the prime culprits, Bluefield analyst Eric Bindler says. In the 1970s, the federal government paid about a third of the cost of providing municipal water, he says, but by 2010, that had fallen to about 4 percent. Costs have increasingly been passed on to consumers.
And it’s about to get worse. America’s water infrastructure — purification plants, pumps, endless miles of underground mains and pipes, and sewage-processing facilities — is in many cases 50 to 100 years old, in some places even older. Such age leads to system breakdowns and outages, making for added maintenance, material and labor costs. Inflation also plays a part in rising water bills. “The cost of pipe has gone way up, and a lot of that is due to the same supply chain issues that we are seeing in other parts of the economy,” Bindler says.
What about drought?
Scarcity of water has not always related to consumer cost. For example, the average monthly water bill in the desert city of Phoenix is less than $50. But many communities in the West do set higher rates to promote conservation, according to Bluefield. Analysts say changing weather patterns and extreme weather events will affect rates. Those include heat waves, changes in precipitation type and timing, and flooding, says Newsha Ajami, a water expert at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. One reason is that the country’s water infrastructure was designed and built for climate conditions that no longer exist; adapting to changes will require considerable investment. “We have all been relying on a system that is sort of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ and is suffering from decades of underinvestment,” Ajami says. “But now those systems are getting to the end of their life spans or may have already passed their design life. And a lot of that infrastructure was built for a different era.”
Climate change is expected to have longer-term impact, Ajami says, diminishing water supply in many places. Snowpack, which stores water naturally, is declining, as are other forms of precipitation. This is leading to diminished water in reservoirs. As these trends intensify, the future of water looks dire in many drought-prone regions. Ajami says addressing this new climate reality will require potentially costly alternative solutions to supplying water.
The financial impact
For many older Americans, these changes mean that water consumes more of their household budget. In some cases, governments and nonprofits are stepping in to help. Impact Community Action Partnership in Des Moines helped Smith pay his bill. Paula Arkema, the partnership’s energy coordinator, says the nonprofit helped nearly 22,000 families in Iowa pay their water bills over 14 months in 2021 and 2022, by channeling federal funds from the Low Income Household Water Assistance Program. That was created as part of the 2021 American Rescue Plan Act in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. During the program’s first year, it helped 433,000 households nationally pay water bills, according to federal data. The program is set to end in September. Arkema sees water competing with rising food, gas and heating bills. “We had a lot of families that were struggling,” she says.
In California cities, where water costs can be as high as San Francisco’s household monthly average of $300, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) ordered a moratorium on water shutoffs during the COVID-19 pandemic. That executive order expired, impacting people such as Moises Sousa, 65, a retired aluminum worker in Watsonville, near Santa Cruz. Sousa’s water had been shut off in the past, and by February, he was again behind on his bill. The rising cost of groceries, gas and heat, paired with maintenance costs on his home, had tapped out his savings. He appealed to a caseworker at Central Coast Energy Services, which helped him pay the bill and keep his water flowing. “Everything is just getting so much more expensive,” Sousa says. “Without that help, I don’t know how I would have kept my water.”
Reduce your bill
One obvious way to cut water bills is to use less. That means shorter showers and less lawn watering and car washing. Installing high-efficiency showerheads and faucet aerators can decrease consumption by up to 75 percent. Also check for dripping faucets or other small leaks.
The average American family uses more than 400 gallons of water a day, with 70 percent for indoor uses, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In the West, families use more water on average, with a higher percentage used for watering lawns and landscape. In 2022, to stem a shortage from severe drought, officials in Southern California limited outdoor water use to one day a week for residents of parts of Los Angeles and surrounding areas. The rule has since been lifted, but residents across the state are barred from watering lawns for 48 hours after rainfall. They also cannot use water to wash sidewalks and driveways or wash vehicles without an automatic shutoff nozzle on their hose.
Reducing water usage still may not make a bill affordable, given built-in fees for delivery and sewage processing. Cities offer income-based programs that provide discounts and modified rate structures. Some offer age-related discounts. Check with your water provider to find these programs. In addition, homeowners and renters who pay water bills may be eligible for assistance through the federal Low Income Household Water Assistance Program. To search for the office that can help you access benefits, go to waterhelp.info.