Water Woes

“It’s like we’re all on the SS Titanic and there aren’t lifeboats for everyone.”

That chilling quote comes from a Detroit resident interviewed for a new report that delves  into the issue of water rates and how they are affecting urban dwellers.

Titled "Tapped Out: Threats to the Human Right to Water in the Urban United States," the just-released study was produced by nine Georgetown University Law Center students working under the auspices of the Georgetown Law Human Rights Institute.

The researches looked at two cities — Detroit and Boston, both of which have abundant supplies of fresh water.

The report’s conclusion?

“In the United States today, the goal of universal water service is slipping out of reach. Water costs are rising across the country, forcing many individuals to forgo running water or sanitation, or to sacrifice other essential human rights. The fixed costs of water systems have increased in recent years, driven in part by underinvestment in infrastructure. In many cities, this has been exacerbated by population shifts and the economic downturn. In this era of increasing costs and limited financial resources, water providers struggle to balance the competing priorities of modernization and universal access.”

As noted in the report, researchers found that:

• The human right to water and other essential human rights are threatened by rising water rates;

• The overuse of water shutoffs as a means to enforce bill payments comes with little economic justification and leads to individuals losing the only legal source of running water in their homes;

• Water rate structures often focus on water as a commodity and in doing so neglect opportunities to optimize access, affordability, and maximum cost recovery;

• Water utility billing practices are sometimes difficult to understand and contribute to water shutoffs and inaccessibility in marginalized communities; and

• Some residents feel discriminated against with respect to water access; statistical studies confirm a discriminatory impact.

However, as the report also pointed out, there are solutions. Among them:

• A general prohibition against water shutoffs for the most vulnerable populations, based on age and disability;

• Clear and legally enforceable water affordability standards;

• Progressive rate structures that facilitate greater access and cost recovery; and

• Expanded and more flexible water assistance plans to maintain continual service.

To learn more about the project, and to read the full report,  go here.

— Curt Guyette

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