While most Americans worry about gas and heating oil prices, water rates have surged in the past dozen years, according to a USA TODAY study of 100 municipalities. Prices at least doubled in more than a quarter of the locations and even tripled in a few.
Consumers could easily overlook the steady drip, drip, drip of water rate hikes, yet the cost of this necessity of life has outpaced the percentage increases of some of these other utilities, carving a larger slice of household budgets in the process.
"I don't know how they expect people to keep paying more for water with the cost of gas and day care and everything else going up," complains Jacquelyn Moncrief, 60, a Philadelphia homeowner who says the price hikes would force her to make food-or-water decisions. She gathered signatures on a petition opposing a proposed water rate increase in her city this year.
USA TODAY's study of residential water rates over the past 12 years for large and small water agencies nationwide found that monthly costs doubled for more in 29 localities. The unique look at costs for a diverse mix of water suppliers representing every state and Washington, D.C. found that a resource long taken for granted will continue to become more costly for millions of Americans. Indeed, rates haven't crested yet because huge costs to upgrade or repair pipes, reservoirs and treatment plants loom nationwide.
In three municipalities - Atlanta, San Francisco and Wilmington, Del. - water costs tripled or more. Monthly costs topped $50 for consumers in Atlanta, Seattle and San Diego who used 1,000 cubic feet of water, a typical residential consumption level in many areas. Officials in the three municipalities and elsewhere, however, say actual consumption is often lower. But conservation efforts counter-intuitively may raise water rates in some localities.
The trend toward higher bills is being driven by:
- The cost of paying off the debt on bonds municipalities issue to fund expensive repairs or upgrades on aging water systems.
- Increases in the cost of electricity, chemicals and fuel used to supply and treat water.
- Compliance with federal government clean-water mandates.
- Rising pension and health care costs for water agency workers.
- Increased security safeguards for water systems since the 9/11 terror attacks.
Higher rates still ahead
The costs continue to rise even though residential water usage dropped sharply nationwide in the past three decades amid conservation efforts.
U.S. water systems will need as much as $1 trillion in infrastructure improvements by 2035 to keep up with drinking water needs, according to a survey of industry experts released in June.
The bond debt needed to fund those projects' work will be passed on to consumers, including the many Americans struggling with the economic fallout of the great recession.
A virtually irreplaceable resource that Americans rely on for health and daily living "could potentially get more and more expensive," says John Chevrette, who heads the management consulting arm of Black & Veatch, the firm that conducted the industry survey.
He predicts rate increases of 5% to 15% every few years, saying the cost of water "could take a larger and more significant bite out of otherwise disposable income."