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Drowning in Costs: The Urgent Need for Water Affordability

Updated: Sep 7, 2023

Clean, safe, and affordable water is a fundamental human right. Yet, across the United States, an alarming number of households grapple with the burden of rising water costs. The issue of water affordability has sparked a collective response, uniting communities to create a vision for change.

The Water Equals Life Coalition: Uniting for Change

As residential water service costs become increasingly unaffordable for over one-third of homes in the country, concerned community groups and nonprofits have come together in Michigan to form the Water Equals Life (WEL) Coalition. On a mission to address the crisis head-on, the WEL Coalition aims to create a water affordability program, guided by a set of agreed-upon principles, to ensure access to clean, safe, and affordable water for all residents. Ultimately, these will inform policies and legislation that will protect families from dangerous and cost-inefficient shutoffs, while allowing them to pay a bill they can truly afford. This isn't assistance. This is affordability.

Taking the Pledge

At the heart of this movement lies the Water Affordability Pledge put forth by Michigan Water Unity Table. This pledge encapsulates a simple yet powerful truth: water equals life. The pledge underscores the necessity of clean and affordable drinking water for both individual well-being and public health. Shockingly, water rates in many communities have surged by more than 41 percent since 2010, with the disparity among racial and socioeconomic lines creating a bigger burden on people who are already overwhelmed by high costs of living and low wages.

Past, Present, and Future: Aging Infrastructure in the Era of Climate Change

Part of the challenge to clean drinking water for all arises from aging water systems that are nearing the end of their lifespan. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates a staggering $15 Billion is needed over the next 20 years to upgrade and maintain Michigan's water infrastructure. Despite this pressing need, federal funding for water infrastructure and treatment has seen a drastic decline, leaving residents to bear a substantial portion of the financial burden.

Storms and Shutoffs: A Double Blow

The problem is further exacerbated by extreme weather events, which strain an already overburdened wastewater treatment system and drive up treatment costs. Perhaps even more distressing is the fact that millions of Americans have experienced water shut-offs due to inability to pay their water bills. In 2016 alone, over 15 million Americans—equivalent to 1 out of every 20 households—had their water supply cut off due to financial constraints.

Inequity and Injustice: the Real Costs of Unaffordable Water

While high water costs affect everyone, the brunt is often borne disproportionately by communities of Color. Historical inequities have left these communities with fewer resources and higher income inequality. Paying for essential water and sewage services takes up a larger portion of their incomes. Research by the American Civil Liberties Union reveals a stark disparity in water shutoffs in Detroit—areas with less than 75 percent African American populations experienced 60 percent fewer water shutoffs due to nonpayment. This inequality only grew during the COVID-19 pandemic, emphasizing the urgency of addressing this issue.

Beyond Economics: The Public Health Ramifications

When families are unable to pay their water bills, their water supply is often shut off—a situation with dire public health implications. Water shutoffs can contribute to the spread of diseases and viruses, including COVID-19. Studies by the Henry Ford Global Health Initiative suggest that residents in areas with water shutoffs were 1.55 times more likely to be diagnosed with water-associated illnesses. Beyond the physical ramifications, the lack of running tap water also takes a toll on mental health.

A Call to Action: The Water Affordability Platform

Recognizing the severity of the issue, the United Nations advocates that no household should spend more than 3 percent of their monthly income on water bills. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sets the standard slightly higher, at 4.5 percent. Sadly, many communities across the country exceed these thresholds, leaving residents with a heavy financial burden. Many Michigan residents pay as much as 25% of their monthly income on water bills.

In response, the WEL Coalition and the Water Affordability Pledge present a vision for change. It's a commitment to ensuring access to clean, safe, and affordable water for all Americans. This pledge isn't just about solving a problem; it's about addressing a fundamental need for life itself. By endorsing the Water Affordability Platform, legislators and communities alike are embracing a collective effort to tackle this challenge, informed by experiences and driven by a desire for equitable water access.

By rallying around initiatives like the Water Affordability Pledge, we take a crucial step towards a future where water truly equals life for all.

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