NACWA Looks to Answer Critical Questions: When Is Water Too Expensive? What Can Be Done About It?

Local utilities go to great lengths to provide safe and reliable drinking water. What happens if rising rates make the price too high for lower-income families?

For years, drinking water and wastewater utilities have invested to provide quality services, protecting lakes and streams from pollution and delivering clean, safe drinking water reliably to households and businesses.

The trouble is that, as the utility system ages, and as government regulations become stricter, utilities face a growing crisis of funding. That’s according to the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA) and the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies (AMSA).

The two have embarked on an “Affordable Water, Resilient Communities” initiative, seeking approval for more federal government support to help utilities deliver on their mission.

Big funding gap

The United States faces about $1 trillion in necessary investment in drinking water and wastewater over the next 20 years, according to the initiative’s literature: “The most recent EPA Clean Watersheds Needs Survey found $271 billion in need for wastewater and stormwater systems, and the most recent EPA Drinking Water Needs Survey found $473 billion in need for drinking water systems.

“These EPA surveys estimate the investment needed just to maintain existing systems. They do not include the costs of likely new regulations, population growth, system expansion and climate change/resiliency.”

The rising cost of providing services is outstripping utilities’ ability to cover their costs through rate increases. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the federal share of capital, operations and maintenance for water services has dropped to 5%, versus nearly 50% for highways, 17% for mass transit and rail and aviation (also 17%).

Falling behind

At the same time, according to NACWA and AMSA, “an enormous wealth disparity has emerged between the rich and poor. Wage stagnation, especially in the lowest income brackets, has led to unprecedented financial strain that has impacted ratepayers’ ability to pay their water and sewer bills.” The pandemic and its financial impacts have only made matters worse.

Compounding the issue, utilities face challenges not envisioned when the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act were developed:

-Responding to climate change and investing in resilience

-Investing in sewer overflow prevention and stormwater control

-Working with the farm community to protect source water and limit nutrient releases.

-Advancing environmental justice, green infrastructure and water reuse.

As a result, wastewater and drinking water rates have outpaced inflation in recent years and likely will continue to do so as utilities undertake infrastructure renewals and regulatory compliance projects.

“The reality is that the poorest households in our communities are the ones bearing the most disproportionate impact from water rate increases as a percentage of their household income — creating for many an agonizing choice between paying for water and for other essentials such as food or medicine,” NACWA and AMSA state.

The way forward

In view of all this, NACWA and AMSA argue that now is the time for the federal government to re-commit in a big way to investment in water and wastewater systems.

They advocate for the White House and Congress to make sure water is a top priority for infrastructure investment. In particular, they call on Congress to assign high priority to programs such as loan revolving funds, the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act program, and the Sewer Overflow and Stormwater Reuse Municipal Grants Program.

The also advocate for the creation of a permanent Federal Water Customer Assistance Program to help low-income water customers, targeting households with the greatest hardship in maintaining access to water services.

“For decades there have been federal programs to help low-income Americans pay for the most essential household needs — housing, food and energy — with water notably absent from this list,” the associations observe. “Since December of 2020, Congress has provided more than $1.1 billion for first-ever federal assistance to help low-income individuals pay water bills during the economic crisis caused by the pandemic. …Congress must also recognize that the need will not evaporate when the pandemic ends.”

Where you come in

Operators’ support for this initiative, to the extent that it loosens the federal purse strings for water infrastructure investment, can help utilities acquire the equipment and staffing resources they need to fulfill their expanding responsibilities. And that will help make operators more effective in their roles.

You can find out more, including how you and your utility can engage with this effort, by visiting  


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