This is Eileen Wray-McCann for Circle of Blue. And this is What’s Up with Water, your “need-to-know news” of the world’s water, made possible by support from people like you.
In India, a severe monsoon season is inundating one of country’s largest cities. In Mumbai’s southern districts last week, nearly a foot of rain fell in a single day. It was the city’s most intense storm in half a century. The Indian Express reported that Mumbai’s antiquated drainage system could not keep up. Neighborhoods flooded as stormwater pipes were overwhelmed. The intensity of the storm is partly to blame, but engineers also point to a failure of urban design. The drainage system dates back 140 years, when Mumbai had ample green space to absorb rainfall. In the modern city, concrete and hard surfaces have replaced wetlands and trees, so water to runs off rapidly and creates drainage backups. The whole summer has been that way. According to Santa Cruz Observatory in Mumbai, nearly 7 feet of rain fell in the city between July 10 and August 7. Half of that total came in one five-day period. Not all summers will be this wet. Researchers expect that as the planet warms, the Indian monsoon will weaken and become more erratic.
In the Unites States, in North Carolina, small, rural water systems had financial problems even before the new coronavirus emerged. The economic pressures of the pandemic are now pushing rural areas to the edge of insolvency due to the cost of their water systems. The North Carolina News Collaborative reported that Tyrrell County, the least populated county in the state, nearly defaulted this spring on the bond payments for a new water treatment plant. The state stepped in at the last moment with a bailout. The emergency aid was necessary because the county’s largest water customer, a state prison, closed last year, and the financial hole has deepened since. Because of the pandemic, more residential customers are behind on their bills. The chairman of the Tyrrell County Commission estimates that one in five accounts is past due. The county says it needs to raise water rates about 10 percent to have enough operating revenue. But it is uncertain if residents can afford the increase. The unemployment rate in the county has climbed to 14 percent.
This week Circle of Blue published the first story in a series on the debt that American households owe to their water departments.
Most Americans give little thought to water bills, paying them on time and in full. But for some homeowners and renters, water debt is relentless and menacing.
Circle of Blue’s investigation focused on a dozen major U.S. cities with publicly operated water utilities. Collectively, they represented over a billion dollars in past-due water bills, owed by about a million and a half households. Businesses, industries, and other commercial operations in those cities owed another $416 million.
The water debt burden stems from two notable national trends: the rising cost of water service and the general vulnerability of those at the bottom of the economic pecking order. There, a plumbing problem or missed bill can spiral into financial doom. A pipe leak can swiftly trigger an abnormally high water bill, but water debt also builds up over time, drop by drop in the monthly struggle to make ends meet on poverty wages.
However it accumulates, water debt has serious and potentially long-lasting consequences. Water departments can shut the water off to homes. Utilities impose fees for late payments. In their efforts to collect, some cities use tax liens on property, which add additional fees and can mean foreclosure or the inability to get a loan for home repairs. Maria Quiñones-Sánchez is a four-term member of the Philadelphia City Council. She distilled the effect of water debt, telling Circle of Blue “It makes poor people poorer.”
As water debt has become more pervasive, various attempts are being made to address it. Some utilities have bill assistance programs funded by ratepayer revenue, but others seek private donations to fund the programs. The charity Human Utility raises money in order to pay overdue bills for people in Baltimore and Detroit. City councils and mayoral administrations in Baltimore, Chicago, and Philadelphia have ordered their water departments to provide a way for indebted, low-income residents to resolve their overdue accounts. The legislation in Philadelphia, which was sponsored by Quiñones-Sánchez, established a novel water-billing system for people near the poverty line. Those enrolled in the program have their water bill set as a percentage of their income, between 2 and 4 percent. The goal is an affordable bill that prevents debt from accumulating in the first place. Baltimore will soon adopt the system, on the orders of its Council.
Water shutoffs in the United States grabbed public attention in 2014 after service disconnections in Detroit. In a move related to the city’s bankruptcy proceedings, its contractors turned off water to about 30,000 homes that year, prompting an outcry that reached the United Nations.
Less visible, but no less important, are the financial accounts that underpin the shutoffs. Yet debt is a blind spot in the debate about water affordability. Although water debt is a crucial component of household financial insecurity and water access, it is largely unexamined by researchers and policymakers.
To better understand the depth and breadth of the problem, Circle of Blue launched the most extensive investigation of water debt and its consequences ever conducted by a news organization in the United States. Reporter Brett Walton spent eight months examining financial data related to customer debt that Circle of Blue had requested from water departments in 12 large U.S. cities. Those cities were Atlanta, Chicago, Cleveland, Denver, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, San Antonio, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. The selections were not a random sample. The cities were chosen because they represent a cross-section of America, a mix of geographies, demographics, population sizes, and wealth.
An effective analysis was challenging for several reasons. First, data on debt reflected a point in time, which differed among the various utilities. Five utilities reported their data from June 2019, the end of their fiscal year. The most recent figures, from Houston, were from almost a year later, from May 2020.
Second, utilities package their service charges differently. Some utilities bill for water only, others combine water and sewer, and still others include charges for things such as garbage collection and stormwater fees. The debt to the utility reflects all the services for which it bills, even though the water department is usually the one that has to enforce collection. Garbage collectors are not cutting off trash pickup.
Another complication is that debt levels are always in flux, as some people pay up and others fall behind. Data from Atlanta shows that the Department of Watershed Management collected nearly 100 percent of billed revenue in fiscal year 2019, but only 96 percent of billed revenue in 2018. The year before, in 2017, the department pulled in 102 percent of billed revenue, as people in Atlanta paid off debts that had accumulated in previous years. According to several utility analysts, collection rates nationwide are, on average, between 97 per cent and 99.5 percent.
Despite the statistical complexity, Circle of Blue found striking results. Residential water debt differed markedly from city to city, ranging from $341 million in Chicago to only $568 thousand in San Francisco. Eight cities reported their median residential debt, ranging from $79 in Denver, to $216 in Seattle, to $415 in Detroit, to $662 in Philadelphia.
Those figures may be changing already, as more people find themselves financially unstable. Circle of Blue’s data on customer debt were requested and collected, by and large, before the coronavirus pandemic. Since state-mandated lockdowns began in mid-March, financial circumstances for tens of millions of Americans have been upended. The unemployment rate was 11 percent in June, and at least 1 million people have filed for unemployment insurance each week, for the last 19 weeks.
Watching the economic dominoes fall, many water utilities, regulators, and governors acted in March and April to shield customers from immediate financial disaster. Most utilities stopped shutting off water for unpaid bills and they suspended late payment fees. They offered extended repayment terms for people in debt, giving them more months to pay off their bills.
The signs of the struggle are mounting. The United Way of Greater Houston, which covers four counties in the metro area, told Circle of Blue that some 6,000 people called its helpline between March and July asking for assistance with their water bills. That’s a 35 percent increase over the same time period last year. The question is from where the help will come. As tax revenues crater, both municipal and state budgets are in shortfall, or even free fall. Utility representatives favor the use of federal funds.
House Democrats have shown the most consistent support in Congress for water bill assistance. They included $1.5 billion for that purpose in the Heroes Act, which the House passed in May. Senate Republicans are less inclined in that direction. Their latest proposal offered $1.5 billion for assistance with energy bills, but nothing for water bills.
And that’s What’s Up With Water from Circle of Blue, which relies on your support for independent water news and analysis. Please visit circleofblue.org and make a difference through your tax-deductible donation.
Eileen Wray-McCann is a writer, director and narrator who co-founded Circle of Blue. During her 13 years at Interlochen Public Radio, a National Public Radio affiliate in Northern Michigan, Eileen produced and hosted regional and national programming. She’s won Telly Awards for her scriptwriting and documentary work, and her work with Circle of Blue follows many years of independent multimedia journalistic projects and a life-long love of the Great Lakes. She holds a BA and MA radio and television from the University of Detroit. Eileen is currently moonlighting as an audio archivist and enjoys traveling through time via sound.