The Urban U.S. Water Access Scandal & How to Fix It

It’s not about infrastructure. It’s about our ability to manage cost of access.


The number of people in the United States without water access is the equivalent of a large metro area. Imagine if a U.S. city that size lost water access for its entire population. It would be a national scandal, worthy of immediate attention.

So the U.S. water access problem is a national scandal, worthy of our immediate attention.

When we think about U.S. water access issues, we usually think rural — about the rural poor on reservations, in the colonias, in the rural South, in Alaska, in Hawaii. We need federally focused dollars and a research center to address this problem. In these rural cases, the problem boils down to a lack of infrastructure — built, technical and social.

But the United States also needs to address its urban access problem. In these urban cases, there is infrastructure — but it’s aging, gets fixed less quickly, and it’s shut off if customers don’t pay their bills. Or, as in the Flint case, policymakers and financiers look the other way towards delivering a quality product to inner city neighborhoods because tax revenue from those neighborhoods is low.

“In the urban landscape, our diagnosis must focus not on proximity to safe water, but instead on people’s ability to manage the cost of access to it,” says Melody Wright, owner & principal of Say/Do Strategies in Philadelphia and the former government affairs lead for the Philadelphia Water Department.

“Very large cities like Philadelphia. Boston, Indianapolis and Baltimore have poverty rates of 20 percent or higher — that’s one out of every five residents, struggling with basic necessities,” she adds. “Their inability to pay water bills can lead to shut offs and large customer account arrearages that significantly contribute to household instability and impact public health for everyone — an issue further exacerbated in the pandemic.”

We need to think about access in urban areas in two ways: 1) Pricing, especially tiered pricing to sustain utility revenue while providing essential access at lower price tiers; and 2) debt consolidation, forgiveness and capacity building to build residents’ water utility credit and turn their water back on.

With a way to affordably pay, and incentive to do so regularly (i.e., forgiveness of back debt), a structure is put in place that builds a sustainable means of water access for people in urban settings.

— Melody Wright, Say/Do Strategies

Pricing is an ongoing challenge: There is a real and regularly increasing cost associated with reliably providing safe drinking water and properly treating wastewater in cities. Appropriate levels of revenue are what make these vital services possible.

“The existence of customer assistance programs also relies on this revenue,” adds Melody, “so it’s a major challenge to balance having water rates meet changing operational needs while also avoiding a situation where those rates become unaffordable for more and more customers over time.”

That’s why I think we need essentially microfinance approaches that allow for services that continue to these people without disruption and that allow for slow repayment, either through forgiveness or interest-free loans.

In the most progressive assistance model I know — the Tiered Assistance Program (TAP) in Philadelphia — debt forgiveness and capacity is built directly into the assistance program structure. TAP customers’ penalties and interest on back debts are frozen, and these back debts are ultimately forgiven over time, in direct connection to their on-time regular payments. The approach both eliminates debt burdens and, in so doing, encourages healthy bill payment practices that might even carry over into other financial areas for customers.

“I think the second piece is more important — the capacity building,” says Melody. “With a way to affordably pay, and incentive to do so regularly (i.e., forgiveness of back debt), a structure is put in place that builds a sustainable means of water access for people in urban settings.”

She adds: “We need to continue to build customer assistance programs that are increasingly robust and inclusive and increase outreach that educates customers on ways to save on their water-related expenses, like detecting leaks and drinking tap water instead of bottled.”

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John Sabo
Audacious Water

Director, ByWater Institute at Tulane University