For Immediate Release
A new national survey of water shutoff rates shows how two systems in Pennsylvania stand out: Philadelphia’s income-based water affordability program provides a groundbreaking model to address the national crisis, while private operator Aqua PA refused to release any data about how many households it has shut off.
As first reported in the Associated Press, the Food & Water Watch report, America’s Secret Water Crisis: National Shutoff Survey Reveals Water Affordability Emergency Affecting Millions, is a first-ever nationwide assessment of water shutoffs for nonpayment. The results point to an alarming and largely hidden water affordability crisis.
The study looks at data for the two largest water providers in each state. The average water utility shut off 5 percent of households for nonpayment in 2016. Based on that data, the report estimates that 15 million people experienced a water shutoff at some point that year.
In total, 15 of the 73 utilities reported shut off rates of more than 10 percent, with the highest shutoff rates mostly concentrated in the South.
In Pennsylvania, Philadelphia’s shut-off rate in 2016 was the national average (5 percent), but among surveyed cities, Philadelphia had the fifth highest number of people affected by shutoffs. In 2016, the city shut off 26,479 households, affecting an estimated 68,581 people. But the city has proactively addressed its affordability problem; starting in July 2017, the city launched the nation’s first income-based affordability program for water service. The program has been highly effective at reducing water burden on low-income households.
“Everyone should have access to clean, safe running water, and cities should adopt programs to make water service affordable for everybody,” said Robert Ballenger of Community Legal Services of Philadelphia. “A little over a year ago, Philadelphia launched its Tiered Assistance Program (TAP), providing water bills as a modest percentage of household income. Already, the program has enrolled twice the number of customers who were able to successfully participate in prior water rate assistance programs. Tens of thousands of low-income Philadelphians now have the safety and certainty of life-essential water service at their homes – a reality that many take for granted but so many others have gone without.”
The Food & Water Watch report also reveals another problem: The lack of transparency from corporate operators. Pennsylvania’s second largest provider, Bryn Mawr-based Aqua Pennsylvania, declined to make shutoff data publicly available, which was typical of the private companies surveyed for the report.
This behavior is especially troubling, given that Aqua PA is aggressively moving to buy up systems in the state, which would mean that basic information about shutoffs would be kept hidden from the public. That lack of data would hamper efforts to address mounting affordability problems. The company recently proposed significant rate increases for its customers.
The company recently announced a plan to purchase Peoples Gas, which puts the company in a better position to take over the publicly-owned Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA).
“Philadelphia’s affordability program is protecting low-income residents’ right to clean water, and it is a model for other cities across the country,” said Mary Grant, the Public Water for All Campaign Director at Food & Water Watch. “But Pennsylvania also has a serious privatization problem. Corporations are shielding vital data on shutoffs, while at the same time charging residents more than their public counterparts. Lawmakers and state regulators should take the lead in forcing all water companies to make this data available, since it is a matter of public health and safety.”
Accompanying data visualizations (embed codes available upon request):
Interactive Map: http://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/wyUkk/14/
Interactive Chart of Survey Results: http://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/IUvzm/9/