Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
And what that says about how water is valued.
There’s something wrong with this picture: You’ll find some of the cheapest water in the U.S. in a desert metropolis, and the priciest within 40 miles of the Great Lakes.
According to a new report by Washington-based advocacy group Food & Water Watch, households in Phoenix, Arizona, paid an average of just $84.24 annually as of January 2015. Those in Flint, Michigan, paid $864.32—more than 10 times* as much. (The average in Michigan was $323.47, just a little over the national average.) These cities bookended the report’s cost-ranking of the 500 largest community water systems in the country. Their counterintuitive rankings—costly by the lakes, cheap in the desert—say a lot about how the U.S. values water.
First, a caveat: The report’s authors based their calculations on rate data gathered in January 2015 from utility websites and local government ordinances, assuming households used 60,000 gallons of water per year (a conservative amount for more than one person). Since then, a county judge found that Flint’s prices were based partly on an illegal increase, and ordered the city to reduce its rates by 35 percent and to end a service fee.
Taken for granted
Nevertheless, Flint’s water costs remain among the highest in the country, despite the fact that the water has been unfit to drink since April 2014. That’s when a state-appointed emergency manager made the cost-saving decision to switch the city’s water supply to the Flint River. The water was not properly treated. Thousands of children have now been exposed to lead, and Flint remains in a state of federal emergency, yet citizens have continued to pay upwards of $150 per month for water they can’t use. It was only Wednesday that state officials voted to allocate $30 million toward refunding a portion of those bills. And all of this in the midst of the largest freshwater system in the world.
Meanwhile, Phoenix has a very different issue. For the moment, in spite of 15 years of regional drought, Arizona cities have plenty of water stored, thanks to a robust network of dams and canals and decades of dedicated groundwater banking. But long-term prospects are less certain, since the lion’s share of Arizona’s water supply comes from the Colorado River. The Colorado River is already severely over-allocated to cities and farmers throughout the drought-stricken, fast-growing West. And climate change is expected to continue to shrink the snowcap in the Rocky Mountains, which feeds the Colorado River. And yet, Phoenix ratepayers are enjoying water rates that all but encourage them to waste.
Subsidies at work
Many factors account for the differences between these two cities, but here is perhaps the most important one: In Arizona (and throughout the West), water costs have long been heavily subsidized by Uncle Sam. Federal and state funds shored up the construction of the giant canal that connects the Colorado River to Arizona cities more than 50 years ago. In turn, those cities paid, and still pay, a small portion of the infrastructure costs that support them. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but prices haven’t been adjusted in Phoenix to reflect water’s all-but-guaranteed future scarcity in the West. In other words, water prices don’t encourage conservation.
Meanwhile, in Flint, the high cost of water reflects the basic equation of post-industrial fiscal woe: The city is forced to support water infrastructure (and other services) to the same geographical area, but with a dwindling population and tax revenue. In Flint, city officials were so desperate for revenue that they took illegal measures to ratchet up water rates to cover their costs. Later, state officials made the very tragic decision to switch the water supply in an effort to cut costs even further, so far that they failed to protect the basic health of their citizens.
Securing a human right
This is where the state of Michigan—and the feds—should take a cue from the great water infrastructure projects of the West. States and cities should get some basic level of federal infrastructure aid, so that all residents can access at least a minimum amount of what is a basic human right. Cities in serious financial straits should get extra emergency aid to the same end—before residents find themselves drowning in unpaid bills, staring down shut-off notices, or wondering why there is poison dripping from their taps.
And in cities like Phoenix, where water will become more scarce, ratepayers who can afford it should be paying more than they are. Water and its cost can’t be taken for granted—even, now especially, in the place that bills itself as the Great Lakes State.
*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that water cost 100 times as much in Phoenix as in Flint.