Water costs are rising across the U.S. — here's why

By Rachel Layne

/ MoneyWatch

Water bills are rising every year

Each glass of water, shower or flush costs far more than it did just eight years ago — and your water is bill is likely go up again in 2019.

The average water and sewer bill in 50 cities jumped 3.6% this year, marking the eighth consecutive year of increases, according to a recent annual study from Bluefield Research. Since 2012, water bills have surged 31%, outpacing inflation.

This year, the typical household will pay $104 per month for water and wastewater services, the Boston-based company said. That's a faster pace than increases in prices for most groceries or gasoline, based on recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Trending News

So why are Americans drowning in higher water and sewer bills?

For one, cities across the country are grappling with aging infrastructure that's costly to repair. Drinking water is delivered via 1 million miles of pipes across the U.S., much of them laid in the early- to mid-20th century with a lifespan of 75 to 100 years, according to a 2017 report from the the American Society of Civil Engineers. The group gave America's drinking water infrastructure a grade of D. Wastewater systems didn't fare much better, earning a grade of D+.

"We've been putting off that investment, we as a country, for decades now," Bluefield Research's Erin Bonney Casey told CBS MoneyWatch. "And so there's a backlog of projects that we need to do, and there isn't enough money to do all of those projects."

Failure to adequately manage water systems have led to emergencies in Flint, Michigan and now Newark, New Jersey. On Monday, New Jersey's Essex County said it will issue a $120 million bond to replace the Newark's lead service pipes, which have caused increased lead levels in the city's drinking water.

On top of that, climate change is also playing a role because more frequent and stronger storms means higher treatment costs. In some parts of the country, drought has strained water sources to critical levels, making it more expensive for cities and towns to find other sources of water or spend more on purification, for instance.

Increasingly unaffordable

While the increases vary between metro areas, rates on average have increased every year since Bluefield began tracking them in 2012. Water is already unaffordable for one of 10 U.S. households, a share that's forecast to triple to more than 30 percent of within five years, according to a 2017 study from Michigan State University.

"This is getting more and more expensive, and that always raises the question of affordability for low-income households," Casey noted.

Where rates are surging

Of the top 50 U.S. metropolitan areas analyzed by Bluefield, 35 raised rates from 2018 to 2019. The rest lowered or kept their rates unchanged.

Take El Paso, Texas, where residents saw the highest increase among the 50 metro areas. Water rates are up 4% for the 2019-2020 fiscal year, while wastewater rates are jumping 8%, according to a report in the El Paso Times.

El Paso's rates are rising as it pays for years-long repairs to its infrastructure, according to Bluefield. The city prefers to increase bills by a smaller percentage each year instead of slamming residents with a big one-time jump that they may struggle to manage, the El Paso Times reported, citing a city official.

When customers don't pay

Water and wastewater utilities must perform a "balancing act" when it comes to managing water, often a hidden resource from a consumer perspective until the bill shows up, Bluefield's Casey said.

For instance, when rates go up, sometimes people just don't pay at all. But the utility is still managing the same — or more — water volume through its systems and needs revenue to pay for the system. Such a scenario can make bills higher for everyone else.

"So by raising the rates, the question becomes are you really just pushing more people into defaulting on the bill?" Casey said.

There isn't a set billing formula or pattern from utility to utility, Bluefield noted. Bills — and increases — can depend on each city's system for delivery, treatment, need for repair and overhaul of infrastructure, the volume of water used as well as how a customer's bill is calculated, according to the Bluefield report.

"More often than not, public utility rates are mercurial and influenced significantly at a political and municipal management level," the report said.

Utilities still have to pay for the system even when there's inadequate revenue. That can drive some municipalities to explore a private takeover of their water systems, which can be a controversial move that stirs up fierce local opposition. Others turn to conservation programs. Regardless, the bills often just get higher.

El Paso is far from alone. In recent months, cities from San Diego to Cleveland to Durham, North Carolina and Lowell, Massachusetts each made the news because of higher water and sewer rates.

Income-based water bills

Many cities have programs for low-income residents that offer payment plans or assistance of some kind. But some are searching for "more innovative" methods of billing so low-income residents aren't slammed by shutoffs — or decide not to pay their bill at all, Casey noted.

Casey pointed to Philadelphia's program for low-income households as an example. Started two years ago, the program bases water bills on income level, not water use. The Tiered Assistance Program, or TAP, is available to residents with income of less than 150% of the federal poverty level, or about $39,000 for a family of four.

Payments range from 2% to 4% of household income, according to a report in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Portland, Oregon is another city that's developed a way to help renters with costs tied to rising water and sewer bills. Given the rising cost of water, it's likely these types of income-based programs will become more common throughout the U.S., Casey said.

First published on August 27, 2019 / 3:10 PM

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc.. All Rights Reserved.

Harvard freshman rejected by border officers at U.S. airport

The student told the Harvard Crimson newspaper that officials barred him from the country because his friends expressed views on social media that "oppose the U.S."

2H ago Sever Hall at Harvard Yard in Cambridge Snake is seen while a tract of Amazon jungle after a fire while as it is being cleared by loggers and farmers in Porto Velho

U.S.-China trade war is fueling the Amazon's raging fires

Conflict over trade between the world's two largest economies is providing tinder for a global ecological disaster

3H ago Snake is seen while a tract of Amazon jungle after a fire while as it is being cleared by loggers and farmers in Porto Velho Libya Migrants

Dozens feared dead as another migrant boat sinks off Libya

Support group says it got a call from migrants on the doomed boat "in severe distress, crying and shouting, telling us that people had died already"

4H ago Libya Migrants LEBANON-ISRAEL-CONFLICT-DRONE

Lebanon calls drone attack a "declaration of war" by Israel

Netanyahu warns Iran-backed Hezbollah to "calm down," as tension skyrockets following a drone attack on Beirut blamed on his government

5H ago LEBANON-ISRAEL-CONFLICT-DRONE boeing-737-max.jpg

Russian company sues Boeing to cancel Boeing 737 Max order

Aircraft leasing company owned by Russian government is suing for hundreds of millions of dollars, accusing Boeing of lying about "defective" aircraft

5H ago boeing-737-max.jpg jb-tropical-probabilities-dorian.jpg

Critical moment for Tropical Storm Dorian just hours away

The storm's path over the next few hours could help determine how big a threat it will pose as it heads towards Florida

3M ago jb-tropical-probabilities-dorian.jpg Money Down Drain

Water costs are rising across the U.S. — here's why

The cost of water is rising faster than groceries or gasoline, creating a financial pinch for some households

11M ago Money Down Drain Google

Ex-Google engineer charged with stealing trade secrets for self-driving cars

The charges against Anthony Levandowski, 39, highlight the race between Uber and Google to build robotic vehicles

20M ago Google US-CONGRESS-HARASSMENT-politics-sexism

Democratic Women's Caucus wants Epstein's death probed by House

Several House Democrats, led by the Democratic Women's Caucus, asked two committees to probe the circumstances of Epstein's suicide

41M ago US-CONGRESS-HARASSMENT-politics-sexism Close Up Of Man Vaping As Smoking Alternative

Utah lung disease cases from vaping quadruple after one week

The Utah Department of Health confirmed there are now 21 cases of lung disease connected to e-cigarettes

47M ago Close Up Of Man Vaping As Smoking Alternative US-CONGRESS-HARASSMENT-politics-sexism

Democratic Women's Caucus wants Epstein's death probed by House

Several House Democrats, led by the Democratic Women's Caucus, asked two committees to probe the circumstances of Epstein's suicide

41M ago US-CONGRESS-HARASSMENT-politics-sexism Refinery

GOP senator optimistic about background check bill

GOP Sen. Pat Toomey is working to develop a background check bill modeled on his bipartisan legislation with Sen. Joe Manchin

1H ago Refinery Sever Hall at Harvard Yard in Cambridge

Harvard freshman rejected by border officers at U.S. airport

The student told the Harvard Crimson newspaper that officials barred him from the country because his friends expressed views on social media that "oppose the U.S."

2H ago Sever Hall at Harvard Yard in Cambridge Election 2019 Mississippi Governor

Mississippi voters to choose GOP nominee for governor in runoff

Second-term Lieutenant Governor Tate Reeves or retired state Supreme Court Chief Justice Bill Waller Jr. face off in the GOP runoff Tuesday

3H ago Election 2019 Mississippi Governor Jeh Johnson And James Comey Testify At Hearing On Threats To The Homeland

GOP senator who has criticized Putin denied visa ahead of visit

Republican Senator Ron Johnson and Democratic Senator Chris Murphy were denied visas for an upcoming visit Russia

3H ago Jeh Johnson And James Comey Testify At Hearing On Threats To The Homeland taylor-swift-interview-1280.jpg

Taylor Swift on "Lover" and haters

The 10-time Grammy-winner – the highest-paid celebrity on the planet – opens up about songwriting, family, critics, the sale of her back catalog, and the quality of forgiveness

Aug 25 taylor-swift-interview-1280.jpg US-ENTERTAINMENT-MUSIC-AWARDS-MTV-VMA

Missy Elliott and surprise guest in epic VMA performance

The rap icon reunited with Alyson Stoner, who first danced for Elliott 17 years ago in her "Work It" video

updated 6M ago US-ENTERTAINMENT-MUSIC-AWARDS-MTV-VMA screen-shot-2019-08-27-at-10-41-40-am.png

John Travolta tries to give VMA to wrong Taylor Swift

It's the best awards show flub since "Adele Dazeem" – which was also Travolta

1H ago screen-shot-2019-08-27-at-10-41-40-am.png meek-mill-sot-web-frame-1023.jpg

Meek Mill plea deal ends case with no more prison time

"I know this has been a long road for you and hopefully this will be the end of it," a judge told the rapper

2H ago meek-mill-sot-web-frame-1023.jpg gettyimages-1170426726-594x594.jpg

Taylor Swift calls out Trump administration at Video Music Awards

"You voting for the video means that you want a world where we're all treated equally under the law, regardless of who we love, regardless of how we identify," Swift told fans

updated 35M ago gettyimages-1170426726-594x594.jpg Google

Ex-Google engineer charged with stealing trade secrets for self-driving cars

The charges against Anthony Levandowski, 39, highlight the race between Uber and Google to build robotic vehicles

20M ago Google Teenage boy addicted to video games

8chan users moving to Discord, where your kids are playing video games

White supremacists, violent militias, and cybercriminals are chatting on the same mobile app used by kids to discuss popular video games like Fortnite and Minecraft

18H ago Teenage boy addicted to video games The Google app logo is seen on a smartphone in this illustration

How to stop Google Calendar invite spam

Spam is bad enough in email. Here's how to stop it from invading your calendar too

23H ago The Google app logo is seen on a smartphone in this illustration amazon-hq2-1.jpg

Some Virginia home prices have shot up $100K. Thank Amazon

Homeowners are holding on to their property, anticipating a big payoff once the ecommerce giant's HQ2 is built

Aug 26 amazon-hq2-1.jpg mauna-kea-hawaii.jpg

Hawaii or Spain? Why location might not matter for big telescope

Despite years of legal battles and protests, officials say Hawaii's highest peak — Mauna Kea — is the best spot for the $1.4 billion instrument

Aug 25 mauna-kea-hawaii.jpg jb-tropical-probabilities-dorian.jpg

Critical moment for Tropical Storm Dorian just hours away

The storm's path over the next few hours could help determine how big a threat it will pose as it heads towards Florida

3M ago jb-tropical-probabilities-dorian.jpg Snake is seen while a tract of Amazon jungle after a fire while as it is being cleared by loggers and farmers in Porto Velho

U.S.-China trade war is fueling the Amazon's raging fires

Conflict over trade between the world's two largest economies is providing tinder for a global ecological disaster

3H ago Snake is seen while a tract of Amazon jungle after a fire while as it is being cleared by loggers and farmers in Porto Velho 082419-abort2.jpg

Second time's the charm for Soyuz docking at space station

The unmanned Russian spacecraft docked with the International Space Station in its second attempt after aborting its first try

14H ago 082419-abort2.jpg 0826-ctm-amazonfires-bojorquez-1920003-640x360.jpg

Thousands of new wildfires burn across the Amazon

After loosening environmental regulations to speed economic development of the rainforest, Brazil's president promises to deploy troops to battle flames

Aug 26 0826-ctm-amazonfires-bojorquez-1920003-640x360.jpg DOUNIAMAG-KENYA-ENVIRONMENT-ANIMAL-RHINO

Tense wait begins in bid to save northern white rhinos from extinction

Eggs from last 2 females fertilized with sperm from now-dead last male, but it will be days before world knows if there's even a chance of success

Aug 26 DOUNIAMAG-KENYA-ENVIRONMENT-ANIMAL-RHINO Close Up Of Man Vaping As Smoking Alternative

Utah lung disease cases from vaping quadruple after one week

The Utah Department of Health confirmed there are now 21 cases of lung disease connected to e-cigarettes

47M ago Close Up Of Man Vaping As Smoking Alternative US-LAWS-ABORTION

Judge blocks Missouri's eight-week abortion ban

The regulation was scheduled to go into effect on Wednesday

updated 45M ago US-LAWS-ABORTION cbsn-fusion-first-major-opioid-trial-takes-aim-at-pharmaceutical-giant-johnson-johnson-thumbnail-1860098-640x360.jpg

Johnson & Johnson found guilty in opioid lawsuit in Oklahoma

The ruling by Judge Thad Balkman in Norman, Oklahoma is one of the biggest monetary awards in U.S. history

15H ago cbsn-fusion-first-major-opioid-trial-takes-aim-at-pharmaceutical-giant-johnson-johnson-thumbnail-1860098-640x360.jpg a35-reynolds-veteran-suicides-aircut-082619-frame-0.jpg

Inside a suicide prevention call center for veterans

CBS News was given rare access to the responders in Canandaigua, New York, and their life-saving conversations

20H ago a35-reynolds-veteran-suicides-aircut-082619-frame-0.jpg legal-weed-marijuana.jpg

DEA says it will expand marijuana research

The Justice Department said it will take action on applications to add more growers for marijuana research

20H ago legal-weed-marijuana.jpg Snake is seen while a tract of Amazon jungle after a fire while as it is being cleared by loggers and farmers in Porto Velho

U.S.-China trade war is fueling the Amazon's raging fires

Conflict over trade between the world's two largest economies is providing tinder for a global ecological disaster

3H ago Snake is seen while a tract of Amazon jungle after a fire while as it is being cleared by loggers and farmers in Porto Velho Money Down Drain

Water costs are rising across the U.S. — here's why

The cost of water is rising faster than groceries or gasoline, creating a financial pinch for some households

11M ago Money Down Drain Google

Ex-Google engineer charged with stealing trade secrets for self-driving cars

The charges against Anthony Levandowski, 39, highlight the race between Uber and Google to build robotic vehicles

20M ago Google donald trump

Can Trump force U.S. companies out of China?

A more than 40-year-old law gives the president considerable power over corporations doing business overseas

21H ago donald trump rtx6mgx1-1.jpg

New teachers can only afford the rent in one major U.S. city

Educators often must live with roommates or move back home because their pay hasn't kept up with housing costs

2H ago rtx6mgx1-1.jpg meek-mill-sot-web-frame-1023.jpg

Meek Mill plea deal ends case with no more prison time

"I know this has been a long road for you and hopefully this will be the end of it," a judge told the rapper

2H ago meek-mill-sot-web-frame-1023.jpg ap6608010465.jpg

America's deadliest mass shootings

These are the deadliest mass shootings in American history

Aug 5 40 photos ap6608010465.jpg 0827-ctm-familiesandgrief-king.jpg

"It was like I died": Victims' families describe living with grief

Four people who lost loved ones in shootings across the country spoke to Gayle King about the seemingly impossible task of moving on after tragedy

5H ago 0827-ctm-familiesandgrief-king.jpg 0827-ctm-daytoncrash-strassman-1920787-640x360.jpg

Stabbing suspect was tased before deadly series of crashes

"Seeing something like that, it just shows you that anything can happen in a split second," one witness said

4H ago 0827-ctm-daytoncrash-strassman-1920787-640x360.jpg 0827-ctm-epsteinhearing-lenghi-1920825-640x360.jpg

Alleged Epstein victims to speak in court

Alleged victims of Jeffrey Epstein will speak in court this morning in what one attorney says will be a historic hearing. A New York judge invited up to 30 women to address the hearing before he moves to dismiss the criminal sex trafficking case against Epstein, who died by suicide earlier this month in a Manhattan jail cell. Mola Lenghi reports.

7H ago 02:14 0827-ctm-epsteinhearing-lenghi-1920825-640x360.jpg mauna-kea-hawaii.jpg

Hawaii or Spain? Why location might not matter for big telescope

Despite years of legal battles and protests, officials say Hawaii's highest peak — Mauna Kea — is the best spot for the $1.4 billion instrument

Aug 25 mauna-kea-hawaii.jpg cbsn-fusion-nasa-investigates-first-possible-space-crime-astronaut-anne-mcclain-thumbnail-1919776-640x360.jpg

NASA probes possible space crime

Astronaut Anne McClain is facing the first allegation of a crime committed in space. McClain's estranged wife, Summer Worden, accused the astronaut of accessing her bank account while on a six-month mission aboard the International Space Station.

Aug 25 00:44 cbsn-fusion-nasa-investigates-first-possible-space-crime-astronaut-anne-mcclain-thumbnail-1919776-640x360.jpg Anne McClain

NASA investigating first allegation of crime in space

Anne McClain, a decorated astronaut who was slotted to be a part of the first-ever all-female spacewalk, was accused of accessing her estranged wife's bank account while aboard the International Space Station

Aug 25 Anne McClain 082419-abort2.jpg

Unpiloted Soyuz spacecraft aborts space station docking

Russian flight controllers hope to make a second docking attempt after troubleshooting

Aug 24 082419-abort2.jpg image1.jpg

Rocket launches GPS satellite into orbit for Air Force

The new satellite is the second in a new generation of advanced navigation beacons

Aug 22 image1.jpg ashleyfallisparents.jpg

Ashley Fallis death: A family's fight for justice

Was the Colorado mother's 2012 death a suicide, as her husband maintains, or was it murder, as her parents insist?

Aug 24 15 photos ashleyfallisparents.jpg intro-slide.jpg

World's most polluted cities

Air pollution can cause serious health problems for people who are exposed to it, even for just a few minutes

Aug 23 51 photos intro-slide.jpg Fire in an area of the Amazon rainforest near Humaita, Brazil

Pictures from the Amazon rainforest fires

A record number of fires have devastated the Amazon rainforest in Brazil and neighboring countries

Aug 22 30 photos Fire in an area of the Amazon rainforest near Humaita, Brazil corbett-1.jpg

Jason Corbett murder: A look at the evidence

In August 2015, former FBI agent Tom Martens and his daughter Molly Corbett admitted killing her Irish-born husband Jason Corbett, insisting they beat him in self-defense with a brick paver and a baseball bat because Jason was choking Molly and threatening to kill her

Aug 17 11 photos corbett-1.jpg Ashley Ellerin, left, Tricia Pacaccio, center, and Maria Bruno.

Michael Gargiulo case: Stabbing deaths of three women linked to suspected serial killer

Investigators link murders of Tricia Pacaccio, Ashley Ellerin and Maria Bruno to same suspect: Michael Gargiulo

Aug 15 13 photos Ashley Ellerin, left, Tricia Pacaccio, center, and Maria Bruno.  uplift-boyconsolescryingclassmate-1921161-640x360.jpg

Popular

Boy consoles crying classmate with autism

This 8-year-old boy from Wichita, Kansas, saw a fellow classmate crying on the first day of school. So he showed compassion and held the boy's hand, then walked him inside.

updated 4M ago 01:35 uplift-boyconsolescryingclassmate-1921161-640x360.jpg 0827-cbsn-chb-tulsi-interview-1921136-640x360.jpg

Tulsi Gabbard on her political future

Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, who's running for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, sat down with CBSN political reporter Caitlin Huey-Burns in July to talk about why she's running and what her political future may hold.

1H ago 01:41 0827-cbsn-chb-tulsi-interview-1921136-640x360.jpg 0827-cbsn-hvf-hxa-familyongunviolence-1921133-640x360.jpg

Families open up on impact of mass shootings

As the country struggles to address the issue of gun violence, "CBS This Morning" co-host Gayle King sat down with some people who live with the repercussions of mass shootings every day. Gayle joined CBSN to discuss how these familes are coping with tragedy.

updated 55M ago 10:03 0827-cbsn-hvf-hxa-familyongunviolence-1921133-640x360.jpg master-farming-climate-1920x1080notyt-1898130-640x360.jpg

A climate reckoning in the heartland

A historic flood in March 2019 left much of America's heartland under water. Grain farmers already struggling to bounce back from the Chinese trade war must now grapple with the realities of climate change that threaten to change the future of farming forever. Now, some farmers are implementing practices that could potentially reverse the effects of climate change – and provide a bigger profit. In this CBSN Originals documentary, Adam Yamaguchi travels to Nebraska, where he meets two farmers on different paths, both determined to pass their legacies on to the next generation.

Jul 26 23:07 master-farming-climate-1920x1080notyt-1898130-640x360.jpg 0827-caribbeanpreparesfordorian-htp-1921079-640x360.jpg

Where is Tropical Storm Dorian headed?

Puerto Rico's governor has declared a state of emergency as Tropical Storm Dorian approaches the island. CBS News weather producer David Parkinson has the latest of the path of the storm.

2H ago 04:02 0827-caribbeanpreparesfordorian-htp-1921079-640x360.jpg