Washington, D.C. – As first reported today by the Associated Press*, a first-ever nationwide assessment of water shutoffs for nonpayment has revealed that households across the U.S. are facing an alarming and hidden water affordability crisis. In its new survey, “America’s Secret Water Crisis: National Shutoff Survey Reveals Water Affordability Emergency Affecting Millions,” Food & Water Watch contacted the two largest water systems in each state, receiving responses back from 73 utilities. The average responding water utility shut off 5 percent of households for non-payment in 2016. Based on this data, Food & Water Watch estimates that 15 million people in the United States experienced a water shutoff in 2016, or a shocking 1 out of every 20 households.
“This is America’s secret water shame,” said Wenonah Hauter, Executive Director of Food & Water Watch. “As our nation continues to experience a high level of economic inequality and the price of drinking water increases, millions of people are losing access. People must choose between rent, food, medicine—the necessities of life. This disastrous situation is a direct result of misguided priorities and the federal tax cuts that have led to a critical water infrastructure crisis over the past two decades. And we know that this is probably the tip of the iceberg, because we only have data from public utilities. What kind of nation have we become to deny people drinking water?”
“These numbers are alarming. What’s worse is that this information isn’t being systematically tracked,” said Mary Grant, Public Water for All Campaign Director at Food & Water Watch. “Transparency is also a major issue with privately owned water providers, which profit from high water rates but don’t have to disclose shutoff data at all.” (Food & Water Watch has previously found that privately owned systems charge typical households 59 percent more than public providers charge.)
Top findings of the survey include:
- Fifteen utilities reported shutoff rates of more than 10 percent.
- The states with the highest shutoff rates are mostly concentrated in the South – Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana and Florida.
- Jacksonville, Florida’s high shutoff rate—16 percent—affected 41,311 households, or an estimated 107,409 people.
- Phoenix, Arizona’s shutoff rate, 9 percent, affected over 33,000 households, or 94,000 people. Tucson, Arizona had the highest shutoff rate in the West, at 11 percent.
- High rates of shutoffs occurred in midwestern states including South Dakota, Iowa, Michigan and Wisconsin.
- There is no data for four states including New Jersey and West Virginia, where private companies operate the two largest utilities. Only one private company responded to the survey, representing a 9 percent response rate. The response rate of public utilities was 93 percent.
- The highest shutoff rates were disproportionately in cities with more people living in poverty, more unemployment and more people of color.
While the average city with the most shutoffs is low-income, not all low-income cities engage in mass shutoffs. Jackson, Mississippi had high rates of poverty (31 percent) and a zero percent shutoff rate. Jackson has not had a water or sewer rate increase since voters approved an increase to the sales tax to help improve the city’s infrastructure. Meanwhile, some cities surveyed, like Eau Claire, Wisconsin and Leominster, Massachusetts do not shut off water service for non-payment at all.
“Good policies are critical to addressing this affordability crisis,” said Grant. “We need federal funding for our water infrastructure so that families don’t bear the burden of these much needed improvements to our aging water systems. At the local level, policymakers can prioritize affordability programs so that people don’t have to lose access to running water in their homes for simply falling behind on their bills.”
There are serious consequences of water shutoffs. People cannot bathe or flush their toilets, and are often forced to move or may even become homeless. Additionally, 21 states consider lack of running water child neglect, and water shutoffs have led to children being taken from their homes under child protection laws. Yet, there is no other national dataset of water service disconnections.
The report recommends the following policies:
- Local governments should set up affordability programs, and employ best practices to ensure that households have sufficient time and notice to pay their bills prior to disconnection.
- States should pass legislation requiring utilities—including privately owned ones—to track water shutoffs for nonpayment and reconnections of these affected households, disclose that information to the public on the utility website and at a central location managed by a state agency, and ensure that the information is publicly available.
- The federal government can act to support localities by providing the funding relief needed to ensure that every person in the country has safe and affordable water service.
“We need policies that mandate that this information is tracked and made public,” said Hauter. “We need people to know the extent of the affordability crisis in this country so that we can make good decisions, upgrade our infrastructure, and ensure that people have access to this resource that is central to life. We take our collective access to clean, affordable water for granted at our own nation’s peril.”
Food & Water Watch champions healthy food and clean water for all. We stand up to corporations that put profits before people, and advocate for a democracy that improves people’s lives and protects our environment.
* When the AP contacted the Oklahoma City utility, their spokesperson said they had provided data for both residential and commercial shutoffs in error, instead of just for residential shutoffs. The data in the report reflects the original responses from the utilities.
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/
Video/B-roll: Mary Grant discusses top findings from the report (interviews available upon request):
Contact: Darcey Rakestraw, 202-683-2467; [email protected]