Can America Afford the High Cost of Replacing Infrastructure?

A Michigan State University study is one of the first to delve into the issue of water affordability in the U.S.
Can America Afford the High Cost of Replacing Infrastructure?
This map sheds light on the current state of water affordability in the U.S. The "high-risk tracts" (in black) are areas with high concentrations of families with incomes below $32,000 that currently cannot afford water bills. The "at-risk tracts" (in gray) are areas with high concentrations of families with incomes between $32,000 and $45,120 that are at-risk of being unable to afford rising water rates in the near future.

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A new study by Michigan State University claims nearly 36 percent of U.S. households will be unable to afford water in five years if water rates continue rising at projected amounts.

The extensive amount of aging infrastructure needing repair or replacement, climate change, and declining urban populations are among the contributing factors says Elizabeth Mack, assistant professor in the university’s Department of Geography, Environment and Spatial Sciences and one of the study’s authors.

“In cities across the United States, water affordability is becoming an increasingly critical issue,” Mack told MSU Today. “The hope is that enhanced awareness of this issue in the developed world will highlight the severity of the issue, which is not isolated to people in the developing world.”

Mack analyzed water consumption, pricing, and demographic and socioeconomic data for the study, which was funded by the National Science Foundation. She found that based on the EPA recommendation of no more than 4.5 percent of household income going toward water and wastewater services, about 13.8 million U.S. households (11.9 percent) currently may find water bills unaffordable. At the same time, water rates have increased 41 percent since 2010, and if they continue on that trajectory, about 40.9 million households (35.6 percent) may find it difficult to afford rates five years from now.

A significant factor, the study states, is the country’s aging infrastructure, citing experts who say it will cost more than $1 trillion over the next 25 years to replace World War II-era systems. Alongside that is the need to adapt systems to better handle the more intense weather events that are fueled by climate change. Yet another factor is declining urban populations in some areas, meaning that those increasing infrastructure expenses are being spread out among fewer utility customers. For example, the study says about 227,000 customers in Philadelphia — four out of 10 water accounts — are past due, and in Detroit 50,000 delinquent customers have had water service terminated since the start of 2014.

The study, “A Burgeoning Crisis? A Nationwide Assessment of the Geography of Water Affordability in the United States,” was published online by the journal PLOS ONE.

Source: MSU Today


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