What is the water shut-off problem?

November 20, 2017

Water protestors in Baltimore

In 2015, Americans were shocked by the revelations that residents of Flint, Michigan had been unknowingly drinking dangerous, lead-contaminated water for months. The city had switched its water supply to cut costs and residents were paying the price. 

A safe, reliable drinking water supply is something most of us take for granted in the United States, but the Flint crisis exposed the grim reality that many Americans do not enjoy water security. In “shrinking cities” across the country, public water systems are struggling with billions of dollars of necessary infrastructure upgrades to outdated metering systems and hundred-year-old pipes. Many urban water utilities have responded to this challenge with rate increases and outreach to the private sector. At the same time, thousands of marginalized urban residents are increasingly unable to afford basic water access. Many low-income residents have had their water service shut off entirely due to unpaid bills.  

Lacking basic access to clean water at home is the type of humanitarian crisis that most of us associate more with lower-income countries than with American cities. But in places like Baltimore, Detroit, Buffalo, and Pittsburgh, a couple hundred dollars in unpaid water bills can trigger a delinquency shut-off from the utility. Thousands of low-income residents in these and other American cities have had to figure out how to survive, sometimes for months at a time, without water in their homes. This turns daily life into a struggle for hygiene, health, and dignity, compounding all the other financial and psychological stressors facing low-income urban residents. 

Our goal for this research project is to tackle both the human and financial sides of the water affordability problem. We aim to develop solutions that respect the human right to water, especially for marginalized populations, while also recognizing the need for new utility financing models that can help fund infrastructure upgrades and provide reliable service. We will draw on examples of cities that have found ways to avoid punitive water shut-offs, for example by helping residents struggling with unpaid bills to arrange payment plans with the utility that keep their water service on.  

We will be updating this blog periodically with updates on our research, interesting findings, and questions we’re addressing. We hope to use this space to increase the visibility of the water affordability problem in America and also to reach and engage with others working on this important subject. Please feel free to reach out to us to learn more.

Image credit and caption: A group of protestors representing the Baltimore People's Power Assembly, FIST Youth, and Southern Christian Leadership Conference - Greater Baltimore, gathered outside City Hall to air their discontent with the city's recent and controversial decision to shut off water to almost 25,000 residents due to unpaid bills. Used with permission by Josh Sinn via joshsinn.com