Water is essential to life: we use it to drink, cook food, and clean our bodies and homes, among other basic needs. But when it comes from a tap or well, drinkable water is not free. It requires major investments at the home or in a town or city. This has left a sizable portion of the population without continuous access to safe sources of water, affecting their dignity, health, living standards, and even family rights.
The United States does not include the affordability of water, sanitation, and other basic services for the lowest-income consumers in its laws or regulations. Even for elders and children in the United States today, accessing publicly supported water and sanitation services is considered a privilege, not a legal right.
In some major U.S. cities, the cost of household water services has rose over 40% from 2010–2015. Because water costs are rising much faster than in inflation and incomes in the United States, this problem will only worsen. Water affordability has reached a crisis level in many U.S. communities, including Flint and Detroit, Mich., where mass shutoffs have left thousands without water in their homes.
Plainly, universal access to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation has not been achieved in the United States. This failure is at least in part due to discrimination on the basis of race, gender, age, ability, and income, another chapter in our long national history of discrimination against these populations. Making clean, affordable water available to all U.S. residents is a civil rights challenge for this century and a moral challenge requiring immediate action.
The challenge of paying for needed investments in water and sanitation infrastructure and the impending impacts of climate change will require a global effort to promote, protect, and fulfill the human rights to water and sanitation. UUSC and its partners are working on the forefront of these efforts, in the United States and beyond.
This report seeks to describe the real human impacts caused by the lack of universal access to safe, affordable water and sanitation in the United States and documents the responses to this challenge by activists from affected communities, civil society, governments, and service providers. It argues for a concerted effort at the national, state, local, and municipal level to study and remedy the crisis of unaffordable water in the United States.
Service providers and governments at the local, state, and national levels must take immediate, significant steps to address our country’s drinking water and sanitation affordability crisis. At all levels, affordability standards and measures must be put in place, first through executive action, followed by legislative mandate.
I had the privilege of meeting Ms. Nicole Hill at a hearing in Federal Bankruptcy Court in Detroit in 2014. Nicole Hill is a courageous community leader, one of the petitioners in a class action suit that should make the country stop and take a serious look at itself. I know it did for me. This is Ms. Hill’s lived experience of water injustice in the United States. She gave me permission to share this story. — Dr. Patricia Jones
One night, an eight-year-old girl who was staying at her aunt’s house woke up, found the keys to the front door, let herself out, and began walking home alone through the streets of Detroit to her mother at 1:30am. She was afraid she would never see her mother again. She had heard a social worker say that she would be taken away from her mom because the family’s water bill hadn’t been paid and water services would be shut off to the home. The Detroit Water and Sewer Department, the third-largest in the country at the time, had turned off their water, although her mother had paid her bill. How could this be?
The Hills’ water was first shut off in May and restored in late June, but it was at risk of another shut off. Ms. Hill had paid $2,800 toward her water bill — a near impossible amount for a family of five — but still owed another $5,000, which was obviously a clerical error. The utility refused to acknowledge that her bill had been partly paid or that the amount she owed was wrong.
Ms. Hill had gone to the water department to try to resolve the bill, taking her daughter with her, as school was out for the summer. She also brought along a social worker for support and documents proving she had made past payments. In an unguarded moment, the social worker told Ms. Hill in front of her daughter that if the water was shut off, her children would be taken into foster care.
Of course, when the water was shut off for the first time, Ms. Hill had made arrangements for the children to take baths, clothes to be washed, drinking water purchased, and the neighbor’s toilets available until the water was turned back on. But this time, afraid that the social worker would do her legally mandated duty and begin proceedings to take the children away, Ms. Hill immediately made arrangements to have her children stay with relatives.
That night as the girl was walking home in the dark, a man saw her and convinced her to wait while he called the police. The responding police officer, rather than taking her into custody and then into foster care, brought her back to her aunt’s house. Her aunt called her mother, and that same morning, the girl was brought safely back to her mother.
Through the kindness and understanding of strangers, this family survived the damaging impacts of a water shut off that never should have happened. They should not have had to rely on the kindness of strangers.
Definitions and Terms
Affordability Program: More than just an affordability rate structure; a thorough program at all levels of government to secure access to adequate levels of safe water and sanitation at affordable costs for a household.
Affordability Standard: An enforceable guideline for water affordability. We argue that this should be measured at the household level and should not exceed 2.5% of household income for all water and sewer services.
Assistance Programs: Discounts, often one-time or limited to a maximum amount, that consumers can request to offset high bills. These are often funded through voluntary programs and do not reach all consumers in need.
Conservation Measures: Leak repairs, low-flow toilets, and consumer practices that can limit unnecessary or wasteful water or sewer usage. Can reduce costs.
Environmental justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.
Fixed Fees: User fees and other charges on a water or sewer bill that do not change based on the amount of water used.
Human Rights to Water and Sanitation: In 2010, the United Nations General Assembly and Human Rights Council explicitly recognized the human rights to access water and sanitation and that safe, sufficient, adequate, accessible, affordable water and sanitation are essential to the realization of all human rights.
Increasing Block Rate: A rate structure in which consumers are charged more per unit for water, the more water they use. Can make water costs more affordable and promotes conservation.
Levelized Bills: Estimated costs billed in equal installments. Helps consumers budget for water and sewer costs.
Lifeline Rate: A low cost for a basic amount of water. If the amount is adequate for household use, it can result in more affordable prices for low-income consumers.
Mass Shutoff: A utility’s termination of water or sewer services to large numbers of consumers at a given time, usually in an attempt to collect unpaid bills.
Quintile: One fifth. Used in this report to discuss populations divided into fifths based on (median) income.
Rate Structure: The way a utility bills consumers. Can include peak and off-peak rates, tiered rates, affordability rates, and other charges.
Shutoff: A utility’s termination of water or sewer services to a consumer, including physically disconnecting a home from public water and sewer lines.
Universal Access: All people have equal ability to access a public good (like education or water)
Water and Sewer Costs: All costs associated with adequate water and sanitation, including billed water and sewer charges, fees, and costs to rural dwellers, including well and septic installation and upkeep.
Water Services Bill: The billed cost of water and sewer services, including fees and other charges.
UUSC expresses our great appreciation to the Park Foundation and Veatch Foundation of the Congregation at Shelter Rock for their support and commitment to the human rights to safe, affordable drinking water and sanitation.
Great thanks to our elected officials who have shown leadership in the face of the crisis: U.S. Representative Dean John Conyers; Michigan Representative Stephanie Chang and colleagues in the Michigan legislature; California Assembly members Bill Dodd, Mike Eng, and colleagues.
Special acknowledgment and thanks to the U.N. mandate of the special rapporteurs on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, Catarina de Albuquerque and Léo Heller and staff Madoka Saji; and to Dr. Inga Winkler, author and fellow at the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, New York University School of Law.
We want to acknowledge and express gratitude to UUSC’s members and supporters who contribute in uncountable ways to the e ort to ensure that the human rights to safe, a ordable drinking water and sanitation become a reality for every person. We also acknowledge the Rev. Dr. William F. Schulz, in whose capable hands UUSC has grown and strengthened our ability to respond to human rights violations around the world and in the United States.
Thank you in particular to the following leaders for contributing their work and expertise to our collective understanding and guiding UUSC’s work:
Catherine Coleman Flowers of the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise; Dr. Anita Hill, Brandeis University; Sushma Raman of the Carr Center for Human Rights, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University; Jennifer Clary (CA) and Becky Smith (MA) of Clean Water Action; Omar Carrillo, Laurel Firestone, Rose Francis, and Maria Herrera of Community Water Center (CA); Rob Robinson, ESCR Network; Colin Bailey of the Environmental Justice Coalition for Water (CA); Rachel Lopez of Drexel University School of Law and Community Lawyering Clinic; Vern Goehring of Food and Water Watch (CA); Roger Colton of Fisher, Colton & Sheehan; Bernice Johnson, Georgia Women’s Action for New Directions (Georgia WAND); Marion Kramer of the Highland Park Human Rights Coalition; Amanda Klasing, Human Rights Watch; Alice Jennings and the Lyda Pro Bono Lawyers Committee, founder of NCLAWater, and Michigan Human Right to Water Bill Committee; Nicole Hill, petitioner, Lyda class action suit; Kim Folz, Sandra Harris, Dorotea Manuela, and Suren Moodliar of Massachusetts Global Action; Lorray Brown of Michigan Foreclosure Project, Michigan Poverty Law Program; Veronica Joice and Marilyn Mullane of Michigan Legal Services; Randy Block of the Michigan Unitarian Universalist Social Justice Network; Sylvia Orduno and Maureen Taylor of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization; Monique Lin-Luse of the NAACP LDF; Jacqui Patterson of the NAACP; Eric Tars of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty; Eric Janzt of the New Mexico Environmental Law Center; Juliet Christian-Smith and MaiLan Ha of the Pacific Institute; Martha Davis and Kevin Murray of the Program for Human Rights in the Global Economy at Northeastern University School of Law; Chili Yazzie and Terecita Kayanna of the Red Water Pond Community, Navajo Nation, New Mexico; Angelita Baeyens and Wade McMullen of the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Center; Horacio Amezquita of the San Jerardo Community (CA); Britton Schwartz of Santa Clara School of Law International Human Rights Clinic; Rev. Lindi Ramsden of Star King School for Ministry (Berkeley); Sharmila Murthy of Suffolk Law; Susan Leslie of the Unitarian Universalist Association; Irene and Bob Kiem of the Unitarian Universalist Ministry for Earth; Daniel Gogal of the US EPA Office of Environmental Justice’s Tribal and Indigenous Peoples Program; Ejim Dike and Rebecca Landy of the US Human Rights Network; Paul Schwartz and Valerie Nelson of the Water Alliance.
The research, analysis, and opinions are our own. They do not reflect the opinion of the above- mentioned foundations, individuals, members, or supporters.