Water securityA Looming Crisis for Local U.S. Water Systems?

By Sara Frueh

Published 24 February 2021

Water bills in the U.S. are eating up a growing share of household budgets — and becoming increasingly unaffordable for low-income families. In many cities, shrinking populations and aging infrastructure mean increasingly unaffordable water.

Water bills in the U.S. are eating up a growing share of household budgets — and becoming increasingly unaffordable for low-income families. In many areas of North Carolina, for example, a person earning minimum wage would need to work 4 to 5 days each month — 50 days per year — to cover a water bill for a household of six people, according to a recent analysis.

“The rate of water bill increase is faster than almost anything in the economy, including tuition from private universities,” said Martin Doyle, chair of the Water Resources Management Program at Duke University. Doyle discussed the rising cost of water and the reasons why during the recent Gilbert F. White Lecture in the Geographical Sciences.

After he received tenure, Doyle recalled, he had planned to spend his career on a group of water issues that he expected would dominate the science and policy landscape — adaptation to climate change, large-scale restoration of water ecosystems, and modernizing data on water.

“And then Flint happened.” The multi-year crisis in Flint, Michigan — which exposed the city’s residents to high levels of lead in water — was a disaster in itself, but it also pointed to problems that the U.S. as a whole will be grappling with in decades to come, Doyle explained.

“The Flint water crisis symbolized something bigger,” he said. “This pivoted the way I was thinking, and it made me more aware of some of the growing problems … that are present in the United States’ water system.”

Flint was an example of a “utility disaster,” which are becoming more common and frequent, Doyle said. Even when disasters don’t happen, many U.S. cities are facing a dilemma: Their aging water systems are producing water that’s declining in quality, but the expense of repairing those systems can make the water unaffordable to people who need it.

Shrinking Populations, Aging Water Systems
The U.S. population is reorganizing itself, said Doyle, with some cities becoming bigger and richer, while other communities — many of which are in the upper Midwest, the Great Plains, the Mississippi Delta — face dwindling populations and fewer resources.  “We’re getting these two Americas … a growing, enriching America, and we’re getting a shrinking and increasingly poor America as well.”  

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