Imagine these people:
- A young, struggling single mother in the middle of washing her dishes so she can cook dinner for her kids in Oklahoma.
- An elderly gentleman preparing a sponge bath for his frail wife in Arkansas.
- A New Orleans teenager expecting to pop home after a basketball game for a quick shower before he goes to his job interview.
And imagine the faucet they’re reaching for running dry right when they need water the most.
These are a few examples of the kinds of stories you might find when you dig into the impacts of shutting off people’s water for nonpayment. Every story out there is heartbreaking on its own — like Michigan State Representative Alberta Tinsley Talabi’s story about making her own water spigot a community water source for the many around her going without. But we wanted to know: Just how widespread is the water shut off problem in America? Here’s what we found when we asked the two largest water systems in every state to tell us how many households had their water disconnected for nonpayment:
Water shutoffs in America are affecting a huge number of people.
Out of the 99 utilities we asked, 73 provided information. We surveyed the two largest systems in each state, and a pattern emerged that concerned us; overwhelmingly, investor-owned utilities (meaning not operated by the city or township) refused to give the information. Out the 11 we asked, only one private company was willing to give us the data we requested.
Among the utilities that did respond, more than half a million households lost water service for nonpayment, affecting an estimated 1.4 million people in 2016. Applying those numbers and averages across the country, our research suggests an estimated 15 million people in the United States experienced a water shutoff in 2016. That’s an incredible amount of people being subjected to what the United Nations calls a human rights violation, and it’s happening right here in America.
Here’s the water shutoff ranking of cities we have data from:
It might be worse where private utilities manage the water.
The cumulative numbers could be even worse but it’s impossible to know for sure when private companies hide the data from the public. Some privately owned utilities even refused to provide the data to the federal government. This sends a message that the only way to get this information — which is necessary for the public’s decision-making about the future of each city’s water management — is to legally require these corporations to report it. For the typical household, privately owned water utility service costs 59% more than public water service, so it’s easy to think that the water shutoff rates for cities where water is privately managed is much higher. That’s why it's crucial to get this data from cities where water service has been privatized. If the numbers aren’t that bad, what is there to hide?
Water shutoffs are a policy decision — which means another way is possible.
Tiffani Ashley Bell, a co-founder of the Detroit Water Project that tries to keep people’s water connected on a case-by-case basis until policy changes can eventually be made, told CBS MoneyWatch:
"There's no excuse for the wealthiest country in the world to have citizens who have to live that way. I don't believe water should be free, but I don't think citizens should be subjected to going for months without running water."
So what’s the alternative for cities that need to manage their water costs but also want to respect human rights and offer dignity for those who struggle?
In July 2017, Philadelphia launched the nation’s first income-based affordability program for the water sector, which is proving to be successful in keeping low-income households connected. These programs cap water bills at a level that each and every low-income household can afford to pay based on its income.
Other policy choices that help keep people connected and result in more humane water management include more-lenient payment schedules, extended periods for payment plans and sufficient notice prior to disconnection. There are also important state and federal measures that should be enacted to provide funding to areas that struggle the most to keep water services connected.
Tell Us Your Story
Has your water been shut off? We want to hear from you.
What you can do to stop water shutoffs
In response to our water shutoff survey report, Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-MI) said, “We’ve long known what the report confirms: Detroit’s water affordability problem is real and has been for nearly 10 years. These shutoffs are disproportionately affecting low-income and minority residents in Detroit; this is unacceptable. But I am surprised the extent to which other cities across the country are experiencing a similar crisis. To combat this crisis, we must have all hands on deck. Water is a human right and every person should have guaranteed access to affordable water. For this reason, I’m supporting the WATER Act, which would reinvest federal dollars in our aging infrastructure and fully fund safe, clean and affordable water nationwide.”
The next step you can take is to talk about this, sign the petition for the WATER Act, and share this with your network. It’s going to take all of us to protect each other from the rising costs and consequences of America’s water shutoff problem.