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Meta Description: The average cost of water in the US has risen sharply in recent years. Check out the average 2022 water bills per big city and states to see the increases.
Climate change is not just affecting developing countries; it’s also having a devastating impact on the USA. Over the last decade, rising sea levels, runaway wildfires, and drought have wreaked havoc in the US. Water scarcity is fast reaching crisis levels, and citizen’s wallets are bearing the brunt. A brief look at the following statistics reveals the extent of the crisis and the rising costs of water across the US:
- 17 US states have reached a high or extremely high water risk.
- Revenue of water, sewage, and other systems in the US will equal $14.7 billion by 2022.
- West Virginia has the highest average prices in the country at $105 per month. In North Carolina, the monthly price of water is $20.
- The average American uses about 82 gallons of water per day per person.
- Between 2010 and 2018, US water bills rose by at least 27%.
- Federal aid to public water utilities serving almost 90% of the US population has plummeted.
- Water prices are higher in states with regulation favoring private investors.
- More than 2 million people in the US live without basic indoor plumbing.
- America’s infrastructure got a D+ grade for 16,000 wastewater treatment plants.
Delving deeper into these statistics and their reasons paints an even clearer picture of the US water crisis. The facts are sobering, and everyone in the US should understand why water is a precious resource, now and in the future.
US water at risk
Kite and Key Media report that the Water Resources Institute has warned that regions in 17 US states have reached a “high or extremely high water risk”. This implies that US local water utilities in these states will soon be unable to meet the basic water needs of the population. By basic needs, we don’t just mean supplying clean drinking water or water for bathing, cleaning, and other household purposes. The water supply across the US also affects sewerage—indicating an even bigger potential health crisis is looming. Statista forecasted that the US revenue of water and sewage would total about $14.7 billion by 2022; this figure looks to be on track. As water scarcity increases, so too does the cost of this precious resource, and some states are already paying dearly for it, with others looking set to follow.
Rising water bills
The average monthly water bill is not uniform across the US, and the cost fluctuates wildly depending on your state. According to Statista, West Virginia has the highest average prices in the country, at $105 per month. Compare that with North Carolina, where the monthly price of water is $20. The average water bill per state shows a disparity of almost $100.
Average water bills per state:
US water use facts
In addition to the lack of uniformity in average water bills across the US, state or municipal utilities use different units for measuring water use. However, regardless of rates and measurement calculations, the average American uses about 82 gallons of water per day per person, translating into a family of four using about 10,000 gallons per month. In a freestanding house with a yard, the most water is used outdoors, followed by toilets, washing machines, showers, taps, and leaks.
But water usage is very different in the various areas in the US, mainly due to the differing weather patterns and climate. The drier areas in the west and southwest use more water as these areas rely on irrigation, whereas the eastern regions of the US have plentiful rainfall. This means that water in California will always cost more than in Colorado. Water usage tends to be higher in summer, and utilities need to be able to provide water for the community as a whole. During peak hot periods, utilities may implement water restrictions on yard watering.
The average water use in the US is high compared to the rest of the world, and it’s estimated that 355 billion gallons of fresh water are consumed daily. Americans use an average of 88 million gallons per person per capita daily. But in areas such as the arid Southwest, this usage exceeds 200 million gallons per person daily. However, the biggest water users are agriculture and energy production operations. These operations use two-thirds of US daily water usage.
Why Is water charged for?
Water utility companies use water charges to maintain their infrastructure. This infrastructure includes storage tanks, treatment plants and chemicals, and underground pipes that deliver water to homes and businesses. The staff who run the infrastructure also need to be paid.
Types Of water rate structures
Across the US, different rate structures apply. The most common structures are:
A flat fee is a rate structure in which all customers are charged the same amount, no matter how much water is used. This "old style" fee structure is hardly ever used today as it's considered inefficient and doesn't promote using water judiciously.
The uniform rate is a continuous per-unit price for all metered water units used year-round. Differing rates are charged for household and industrial usage. At this rate, your water bill varies with your water usage.
The increasing block rate is one where the unit price of each succeeding block of usage is charged at a higher unit rate than the previous block(s). This rate promotes water conservation and is used in areas with limited water supplies. The declining block rates are the direct opposite. Here the unit price of each succeeding block of usage is charged at a lower unit rate than the previous block(s). This rate is often applied in rural areas with large farming operations or regions with heavy users, such as industry and where water is plentiful.
Seasonal rates are applied at specific periods. They're designed to promote water conservation during peak use periods in summer and lower use in winter.
Drought rates are similar to the above, but instead of applying higher rates during the whole period, rates are adjusted based on the area's drought level. Higher levels of drought mean higher costs for water.
Water budget-based rates
Water budget-based rates give households a water budget, and users are charged a specific rate for keeping within their budget. If they go over their budget, then higher rates are set.
The water crisis in the US
As far back as 2018, experts warned of a US water crisis. The Guardian cites a leading utilities analyst, Roger Colton, as reporting that between 2010 and 2018, US water bills rose by at least 27%. Colton's report stated that in Austin, Texas, the average annual water bill of $566 in 2010 increased to $1,435 in 2018. That's a shocking increase of 154%. Adding to the crisis, federal aid to public water utilities serving almost 90% of the US population was plummeting. The fact that this shrinking of aid happened during environmental and health threats and extreme climate events only worsened the crisis.
Then came the pandemic in 2020, which resulted in shutdowns, supply chain problems, and a considerable cost increase and inflation. This has resulted in most water utility companies—public and private—battling to maintain a safe water supply and maintain crumbling infrastructure. This combination is the primary reason behind high water bills in the US. However, there are other contributing factors:
Privately owned systems push rates up
Privately owned water systems have higher prices, particularly in states that favor investors and developers. Communities with higher poverty rates and aging infrastructure need help to afford high water bills, and many needy households struggle to pay their bills. A 2022 research article by the World Water Council studied the 500 largest US community water systems. The aim was to see whether ownership is related to annual water bills and what percentage of income low-income households spend on water. The study showed that with the largest water systems, private ownership was indeed related to higher water prices affecting low-income families. In states with personal provider-friendly regulations, water utilities charge much higher fees. The report also stated affordability issues were more severe in communities with higher poverty and older infrastructure. The report concluded that water policy is needed to address ownership and regulation and explore new ways to make water affordable to low-income residents.
Inflation & rising costs
Rising inflation is undoubtedly pushing the costs of water infrastructure projects and goods and services. $1 doesn't buy what it did in years gone by. Labor costs, equipment, and the cost of materials have all risen sharply. Many water analysts are worried that water companies will not be able to meet the nation's water demands, despite federal investment and aid. For example, Michigan's lead service lines urgently need replacing. But replacement costs are far exceeding budgets, forcing water companies to reduce the scope of work, which leads to delays in replacing unhealthy pipes.
Despite the $350 billion provided to state, local, and tribal authorities by the American Rescue Plan Act that covered repairing water and sewer infrastructure, water companies are struggling. Stainless steel prices, which form a part of many water systems, skyrocketed following Russia invading Ukraine, as Russia produces nickel, a stainless steel component. Plus, the costs of pipes or lines used in water infrastructure, such as concrete, copper, steel, and PVC piping, have all spiked due to inflation. Components such as microchips which drive water pumps, chlorine, and other chemicals, have also become more expensive, some by up to 20%.
A water crisis that affects the whole of the US
Water is a national problem, and it's not only Michigan experiencing challenges and constraints. The Council of Infrastructure Financing Authorities, representing state agencies that administer water infrastructure loan funds, states that water projects in every state are experiencing higher costs. A lack of funding for poor people also exacerbates the water crisis. Time Magazine reported that despite the US being one of the wealthiest countries globally, a shocking 2 million people live without basic indoor plumbing. A 2021 report in Nature also found that nearly half a million US rural households lacked complete plumbing, while many urban communities lacked clean water. Many parts of the US need access to clean drinking water, sanitary bathrooms, and treated wastewater. Additionally, many rural and urban communities have polluted water and inadequate sewage treatment.
A 2021 report card from the American Society of Civil Engineering on America's infrastructure gave a D+ grade to the country's more than 16,000 wastewater treatment plants. Many of these plants had reached or exceeded their capacities. Drinking water infrastructure in the US earned a marginally better rating, with a C-grade. This inattention and the backlogs associated with water infrastructure couldn't have come at a worse time. The NYU School of Law's research center, Just Security, explained in 2021 how extreme weather events thanks to global warming are causing and will lead to more failures of inadequate and poorly maintained infrastructure. Some even refer to this inattention as "environmental racism," as the poorer African-American communities have shouldered this burden.
As shock climate events such as flooding, wildfires, tornadoes, rising sea levels, and melting glaciers are only set to continue, local US authorities will continue to struggle to meet society's demands for potable water. Climate change not only affects the global environment, but it also impacts negatively on our current and future lifestyle, health, and our economies and wallets. With the average US water bill rising, saving water is no longer something we need to discuss. It's something we need to do.