Upward Trend of Residential Water Pricing Reflects Water Infrastructure’s State of Decay

In a recent study conducted by the Circle of Blue, the price of residential water (including sewer prices and fees for controlling urban runoff from rainstorms) in 30 major U.S. cities was shown to have risen faster than the cost of nearly every other household staple last year. And since 2010, the price of a monthly water bill for a family of four increased an average of 41% in 20 of the largest U.S. cities.

Based on data collected from utilities nationwide, the Circle of Blue study found that the average monthly cost of water for a family of four using 100 gallons per person per day climbed 6 percent last year. In comparison, the Consumer Price Index rose just 1.8 percent in the 12 months ending in March, not including the volatile food and energy sectors. Including food and energy, prices fell by 0.1 percent. For families using 150 gallons and 50 gallons per person per day, average water prices rose 6 percent and 5.2 percent, respectively.

In 2014, for example, the city of Austin, Texas increased rates for its highest volume users by 31%. Chicago, which is nearing the end of a five-year plan to double residential water rates, saw rates increase 15% last year, and San Francisco also raised rates by 15% in 2014. These cities, and others with high monthly water and sewer charges, are paying for huge investments in new treatment facilities, sometimes mandated by the EPA for pollution control purposes.

The upward trend of residential water pricing reflects the deteriorating condition of the tens of thousands of miles of water distribution pipes under our country’s urban streets. As the Circle of Blue study indicates and as we have reported many times before, the far-reaching water supply networks installed in cities all over the U.S. in the decades following World War II are disintegrating and are in desperate need of repair and replacement, and the exorbitant bill (by some estimates, more than $1 trillion over the next two decades) is coming due. The trend of escalating residential water rates is a reflection of that state of affairs.

Underground distribution pipes in many cities have long outlasted their expected life, and we have repeatedly chronicled the havoc their frequent rupture wreaks on the daily lives of Americans. So in addition to the standard costs of regular maintenance of their water systems, municipal utilities are faced with the cost of repairing the damage caused by those frequent ruptures and replacing broken pipes. In recent years they have also had to pay for new treatment technologies in order to meet Safe Drinking Water Act and Clean Water Act requirements. And many cities – like Atlanta and Seattle – are operating under consent decrees with the EPA requiring them to make massive investments in wastewater treatment facilities. Federal grants for this purpose have been repeatedly cut by Congress and, as the Circle of Blue report makes clear, cities must now finance those projects on their own. All of these factors drive the steady upward pressure on water rates.

Residential water consumers cannot continue to bear the brunt of multibillion dollar investments needed to fix our urban water infrastructure. Cities need help – in the form of state and federal funding for new facilities and renewed grants for facilities mandated by the EPA. CWC will continue to fight for more of this funding so that the burden doesn’t continue to increase for our nation’s urban consumers; join us in our fight. Visit us at www.cleanwatercouncil.org.

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About Clean Water Council

The Clean Water Council (CWC) is a group of national organizations representing underground construction contractors design professionals, manufacturers and suppliers, labor unions and other committed to ensuring a high quality of life through sound environmental infrastructure. Working in concert, CWC's 39 national organizations, advocate federal legislation and policies that will promote clean water and improve the nation's failing infrastructure.​
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