The District of Columbia has joined a host of large U.S. cities adding a new charge to water bills to finance the replacement of old and failing water infrastructure.
Earlier this month, D.C.’s water and sewer authority approved a new monthly infrastructure fee that will go into effect on October 1 and will provide an estimated $40 million annually for water infrastructure upgrades and maintenance. D.C. joins cities such as Austin, Charlotte, Las Vegas and Tucson that have recently added new fixed fees to consumer water bills to pay for increasing infrastructure costs. The message is clear: cities can’t wait any longer for state and federal help to finance water infrastructure and the money has to come from somewhere.
As is the case in many other cities, half of the water pipes beneath the streets of D.C. were installed nearly 80 years ago, and a few of the city’s water mains were actually installed before the Civil War. As we have reported before, this phenomenon is common to cities throughout the country, particularly in the Midwest and New England, where the median age of water mains is nearly a century old. Replacing this infrastructure will be hugely expensive – requiring as much as $1 trillion nationally over the next two decades, according to the American Water Works Association, an industry trade group. That’s more than cities and states can be expected to shoulder, and without federal investment – or increased flexibility in financing – cities and states will be forced to increase rates, as we’re beginning to see.
As we discussed in our May 27 post, the price of residential water rose faster than that 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. Part of this increased cost is due to infrastructure inefficiencies. Today alone, old pipes across America are leaking millions of gallons of clean water into the ground, wasting millions of dollars in water, plumbing, and cleaning costs. Cities all over the U.S. are raising rates – and many like D.C. are shifting to fixed rates – to pay for desperately needed investments in new distribution and treatment facilities. Water authorities in these cities hope that fixed fees will provide a more consistent stream for infrastructure investments that will prevent waste and therefore obviate the need for increased fees in the future.
There is no denying America’s need for water infrastructure. There is also no denying that water infrastructure across the U.S. is old, inefficient, and stretched beyond intended capacity. As a result, the costs are on an elevator going up, in most cases beyond what is possible for cities and even states to shoulder, even if they had nothing else in their budgets. But there are members of Congress who believe that the responsibility to finance water infrastructure projects should be left entirely to the cities and states who are to blame for increased fees. Due directly to the unwillingness of these legislators to help cities and states finance water infrastructure projects, and in turn help the economy, cities are handcuffed with the decision to either do nothing and let the problem get worse or raise rates to begin digging out.
We at CWC fear that this is just the beginning of rate hikes across the country. While we believe the burden to pay for water infrastructure should be shared by all consumers of water, raising fees cannot be the only way to generate funds to improve infrastructure. Unfortunately, rates can never go up enough to fund what the federal government should be investing. We hope the rate hikes approved in D.C. and elsewhere, as well as those still to come, serve as a wake-up call to federal legislators to take steps to increase investment in water infrastructure nationwide.