America’s Hidden Water Affordability Crisis

Yves here. Grist has been doing an admirable job of keeping on top of this important yet oddly still-under-the-radar story. In the US, the big driver of rising water costs is the need to invest in aging, neglected water works. But water is going to become an issue in many place for differing reasons. As we have been saying for years, the natural resource that is projected to come under pressure first is potable water. And please don’t push desalination as a magic bullet. That costs money (both the plants and new transportation infrastructure, uses energy, plus has the not-trivial problem of how to dispose of the salt residues.

By Ciara O’Rourke, a freelance writer and 2015-16 Ted Scripps Fellow in Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder. Originally published by Fusion and reproduced at Grist as part of the Climate Desk collaboration

When Elizabeth Mack wondered about a future in which Americans wouldn’t be able to pay for water, a couple of colleagues waved her off. “Don’t be ridiculous,” they said. But the idea niggled at Mack, an assistant professor at the Department of Geography, Environment, and Spatial Sciences at Michigan State University. And in January, in an article published in the science journal PLOS ONE, she asked a new question: Is there a burgeoning water affordability crisis in the United States?

Mack, along with research assistant Sarah Wrase, determined that if water rates increase at projected amounts over the next five years, the percentage of households that can’t pay their water bills could triple from 11.9 percent to more than a third. Nearly 14 million households nationwide already struggle to afford water services. An additional 27.18 million — or 8.5 percent of the country’s population — could soon face the same challenges.

“I don’t think we think about this, about what it would mean to not have running water,” Mack told Fusion. Of course, some Americans have experienced it. Water affordability is becoming an increasingly critical issue in cities across the country, including Philadelphia, Atlanta, Seattle, and Detroit. In Philadelphia, an estimated four out of 10 water accounts are past due. Atlanta and Seattle have some of the highest water rates in the country. And in Detroit, a campaign to cut off delinquent residents has stopped water and sewage service for 50,000 households since 2014. It’s a reality Mack thinks Americans in other parts of the country could face.

“Any place with shrinking city characteristics, any city where we have a hollowing out of a downtown core that used to be quite vibrant” could be in trouble, she said. That’s the case in Detroit, where a declining population has left fewer households to shoulder the costs of water services.

The cost of replacing water systems built around World War II are projected at more than $1 trillion over the next 25 years across the country. Prices will be even higher if cities tap private companies to provide water services because they tend to charge higher rates than public providers. A majority of Americans get their water from public providers, but in Atlanta, where the privatization of water services in part drove up water expenses, the service costs $325.52 per month. Households must make at least about $87,000 for that to be affordable.

Because public utilities can only charge customers as much money as it takes to recoup their costs, Mack said, it can be harder for them to finance new infrastructure — but their rates also tend to be lower than private providers that don’t have the same constraints. Still, a 2014 report by Corporate Accountability International and Public Services International Research Unit questioned whether it’s appropriate to tap private companies to shore up infrastructure projects. “No matter how the private sector frames its intentions, its priority is market development over community development, profit maximization over the public interest,” the report states.

Other drivers behind rising water prices include increasingly rigorous water quality standards, said Laura Feinstein, a senior research associate at the Pacific Institute, a global water think tank based in Oakland. As federal laws are updated to reflect new contaminants, water utilities have to spend more money to treat the water to keep it safe for consumers. Extreme weather events associated with climate change, such as droughts and floods, are also expensive for the systems to manage.

But there are ways for both providers and people to curb costs, she said. As utilities look for new water sources to accommodate population growth, they can turn to storm water capture or gray water reuse instead of costlier dams, reservoirs, and desalination plants. And utilities should be mindful that per capita water use doesn’t necessarily increase as populations do thanks to more efficient appliances and cultural shifts among residents who might water their lawns less.

“In reality, per person water use just keeps going down over time, at least in California,” Feinstein said.

Some utilities have worked to develop effective bill discount programs to focus their efficiency programs on lower-income customers. Offering a rebate for a low-flush toilet, for example, is only an option for people who can already pay for a big investment like that, Feinstein said. But giving customers a discount upfront makes it more affordable.

Water affordability is already a serious challenge for low-income people in the United States, Feinstein said. In one study that looked at a sample of communities in California, the institute found that about 5 percent of households had incomes under $10,000 and were spending around 5 percent of their income on water.

In California, at least, laws restraining public utilities from hiking rates higher than the cost of recovery can also hamper efforts to offer discounts to low-income customers, Feinstein said, “because they can’t charge more affluent customers a little more in order to fund low-income discounts.”

For people already living in poverty — 40 percent of the population in Detroit — any increase in a water cost will strain a family’s finances, said Randy Block, director of the Michigan Unitarian Universalist Social Justice Network. He and others in the faith community are trying to raise money to help needy residents pay for water. He thinks water should be recognized as a human right in Michigan just as the United Nations General Assembly defined it in 2010. He likened the city shutting off water for delinquent customers to a war on poverty, and he believes similar skirmishes will play out across the country as income inequality grows.

“Detroit is the canary in a coal mine,” Block said.

Mark Fancher, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Michigan, said unaffordable water has been a “pretty massive problem” in Detroit for 10–15 years. The practical result of shut-offs, he said, is residents relocating. While there are hardship extensions for residents who have fallen behind on their bills but are also suffering from a serious medical condition, according to Fancher, the system could be a lot better: Residents often don’t know about it, or their applications are denied. Other times, they might receive bills for water they didn’t use or not get the bills at all, he said.

“The argument has been made that an affordability plan for the city of Detroit would be a really helpful thing for the struggling utility,” Fancher said. “Because even though people who take advantage of it may not be paying full market rate for water, they’ll be paying more than nothing, which will at least bring in some significant amount of money that right now they’re not getting at all.”

He questioned how seriously the city is interested in water affordability. The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department did not respond to questions about water affordability and shut-offs in the city, but The Detroit News reported last month that officials expect a new rate structure that rewards low water use will reduce the burden on low-income residents. In turn, said Marcus Hudson, the department’s chief financial officer, their probability of paying will increase.

Mack thinks that governments, utilities, and consumers will need to work together to solve the growing problem of water affordability.

“How can we fix this infrastructure and how can we finance it together?” she said. She cautions against alarmist responses to her study, which, she said, “is not meant to be an activist piece.” Rather, she said her research highlights a quiet water crisis that many Americans are aware of in developing countries but don’t consider in the United States. She doesn’t think anyone appreciates the scope of infrastructure problems here and, she said, Americans should be watching Detroit warily.

“I would hazard a guess that most people don’t know how much water they use,” she said. “I’d encourage them to do some self-education.”

Feinstein is agnostic on whether it’s an increasing problem. The article, leaning on the Environmental Protection Agency’s average consumption estimates, assumes the average household uses 12,000 gallons per month. “That might be more than people really need to meet their basic needs,” she said.

But she agrees that water affordability is a problem. Other countries, such as France, Australia, and South Africa have better programs in place to make sure low-income residents can pay for water, Feinstein said. She thinks California is leading the way with legislation that calls for the State Water Resources Control Board to study how to develop low-income assistance rates statewide. As far as she knows, it would be the first such program of its kind if it’s implemented but, she said, it should be nationwide.

“When people don’t have access to the water that they need, it compromises their health. It means they end up having to make choices between paying for things like medical care and paying for food and paying for water,” Feinstein said. “Water is essential for life. People should be able to get the water they need a price they can afford it.”

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59 comments

  1. BeliTsari

    Remember, Vanity Fair before Correct the Record? http://www.vanityfair.com/news/2010/06/fracking-in-pennsylvania-201006 Philadelphia & New York’s water sources are particularly susceptible, but good luck researching any of this on Google. Articles concerning Pittsburgh’s fracked reservoir are being SEO’d down their bottomless memory hole, https://insideclimatenews.org/news/20110719/natural-gas-fracking-drinking-water-beaver-run-reservoir-pennsylvania suitably replaced by Energy in Depth’s glib rebuttals, from the same period (funny how the offending post disappears, while cut-and-paste K Street blather lasts forever?) I remember Josh Fox’s mention of 850K western Pennsylvanian’s basically drinking watered-down radium-flavored return water, elicited crickets in a Manhattan theater? ProPublica, TXSharon & DeSmogBlog did a stunning job, a decade ago. But locally, the Pittsburgh Post Gazette replaced great, balanced journalism, with fawning PR hand-outs, posted by Koch interns. http://www.marcellus.psu.edu/images/TriState%20Animated%20Spud%2020151231.gif Soon, they’ll discover Philadelphia’s water to have been affected for years? Soon, all you’ll find online will be geo engineering scams from Bloomsberg/ Guardian? https://www.fractracker.org/map/us/ it’s already disappearing.

    Reply
  2. jackiebass

    10 Years ago I was telling my friends that water was going to be a big issue. There were a lot of reasons for my thinking. Neglected upkeep, increasing population, where people were moving to, and trying to turn deserts int green utopias. Also the move ,motivated by neoliberal thinking, to privatize water systems. It appears that my thinking was on target.

    Reply
    1. Moneta

      Society is built around a belief system which usually starts out with a set of pragmatic principles.

      As wealth grows, society clings to this winning belief system and the founding principles gradually morph into nonsensical traditions.

      As the discrepancy between perception and reality widens, delusions take hold. But a system based on lies will crumble.

      For reasons I have not yet fully understood, only a minority can see beyond the mass delusions.

      Reply
      1. Ed Miller

        You may have a better understanding than you are stating, but if not I recommend researching the psychology of persuasion. It is obvious that in our society there are bad actors with the power to influence people through the media they (or their fellow billionaires) own. Even among intelligent people I find that everyone I know is so absorbed in their own day-to-day lives, coupled with a belief in the system, that the real degradation of society is still not recognizable – other than those who think the victims are the real problem. They can’t comprehend their delusions – not saying I don’t suffer too. After trying to connect to people I have realized that with few exceptions I may as well be talking to a wall. I am speaking from the perspective of a recently retired person who didn’t really wake up until 2008 and my on/off employment since then, so I clearly not trying to claim I knew all along. The 2008 investing experience told me the world isn’t what I thought it was, plus I have had time to read like never before, and that has allowed me to reflect on the past and see things differently.

        There are many books, but one I have read is Influence, The Psychology of Persuasion, by Robert B. Cialdini. I found this book in the business section, not under psychology. There are lots under psychology, of course.

        Reply
  3. pmr9

    And please don’t push desalination as a magic bullet. That costs money (both the plants and new transportation infrastructure, uses energy, plus has the not-trivial problem of how to dispose of the salt residues.

    To quote the book by the late and sadly missed David Mackay:

    At a cost of 8 kWh per m3, a daily water consumption of 160litres would require 1.3 kWh per day

    [using reverse osmosis for desalination]

    Average energy use per person in the US is 250 kWh/day . Diluting the brine with seawater isn’t necessarily a cost: the dilution can be used to generate power by reverse electrodialysis or pressure retarted osmosis.

    Reply
    1. Katharine

      Maybe so, but you didn’t address her points about plants and new infrastructure. When so many cities are barely maintaining old infrastructure, accidents waiting (or not always waiting) to happen, those matter. What might be nice in theory simply isn’t going to happen in a lot of places.

      Reply
  4. BeliTsari

    See, nobody cares about water… after all you can live almost three days without it? https://www.propublica.org/article/new-york-city-calls-gas-drilling-effects-crippling-1216https://www.nysenate.gov/newsroom/press-releases/liz-krueger/20-senators-urge-closure-fracking-waste-loophole http://www.newsweek.com/oil-and-gas-wastewater-used-de-ice-roads-new-york-and-pennsylvania-little-310684 http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/04/nyregion/wastewater-is-an-issue-in-hydrofracking.html https://www.propublica.org/article/wastewater-from-gas-drilling-boom-may-threaten-monongahela-river http://www.frontiergroup.org/reports/fg/costs-fracking

    Reply
  5. stillfeelintheberninwi

    Great article and oh so important. About 15 yrs ago my city had to upgrade because of radium standards. Bottom line, the water bill doubled.

    Now the concern is lead pipes and it is the private pipe going from the replaced publicly owned part of the system. Our city council just voted to mandate replacement of this private line when the public line is replaced at a expected average cost to the property owner of $3000. Of course this does not account for all the private lead lines left when the public part was replaced in prior years. The city cannot absorb any of this cost by state law, so they have gone to the state legislature to try and change that. They have a grant coming that they want to use to help defray some of the cost for property owners.

    I’m conflicted because water is not really a main source of elevated lead blood levels in my municipality. It’s much more likely to be from lead paint exposure and even that is very small in my city. In addition, lead in the water can still be from lead in the water lines inside the house. That said, I still think it is important to upgrade our infrastructure, but it is always complicated.

    It is really difficult to get people to be interested in these local infrastructure issues even when they involve their pocketbook. I’m sure there will be outcry once the actual bills start coming.

    I’d love to hear what is going on in other places with regards to the lead pipe issue.

    Reply
    1. Left in Wisconsin

      Madison bit the bullet several years ago – they made you replace your service line when the municipal utility was replacing the mains. (The heavy hand of the state.) As a result, I believe we are the only lead-free ‘major’ city in the country. They did it over 15 years or so IIRC. My water/sewer bill is now $60-$75/mo, which seems high to some suburbanites, but apparently low compared to some other cities.

      Reply
      1. Eowyn

        That is a little bit lower than my town, which has its own municipal water plant pumping from Lake Michigan. We have not required replacement of household lines. Our biggest issue for the past 20+ years is dealing with storm water. And zebra mussels.

        Reply
  6. Jay

    I think the infrastructure companies should learn from the 20th century that putting in infrastructure that is difficult and capital intensive to replace should not be the aim this century. Maybe we need to think about water infrastructure differently than simply repairing the older systems.

    Reply
    1. Anon

      …like say, equating rain-barrells with roof top solar (PV)? Distributed water= distributed electricity!

      Reply
  7. Octopii

    Where I live the utility issue of the day is wastewater disposal rather than fresh water supply. Many old cities and towns on the East Coast originally built combined runoff+sewer systems in which street drains are mixed with sewage. This results in sewer treatment overflows into area rivers after heavy rains, violating the Clean Water Act. We are paying billions in the DC area to have the streets torn up and a parallel surface drain system installed. The plus side is healthier Potomac and Anacostia rivers. The downside is that our water and sewer bills, which used to be a single bill, are now two bills each of the same amount as the former single combined bill. And after that was done, the sewer bill has continued to increase via additional fees tacked on every so often as the sewer authority “eases” us into what we’ll be paying for the next thirty years or so.

    Reply
    1. Katharine

      Beats sewage in the basement.

      But I know what you mean about the bills. Ours have roughly trebled in the past decade, and the city is still dangerously behind on replacing old pipes. There have been instances of broken mains destabilizing foundations (all the easier because many old row houses were built with no more than a “rat slab” in the basement, the walls basically just standing on the clay), and despite the implementation of dual drainage a good many years ago, breakdown of aging pipes sometimes results in mixing of waste with stormwater, with costly damage to streams and the Bay.

      Reply
    2. Anon

      Sewer system bills are bound to rise because of a transition to ever greater treatment (tertiary will soon be standard) and treatment plants being upsized to handle population growth. (The billing for the marginal expansion is NOT paid by just the newcomers, but averaged over ALL the total current users.)

      And, yes, you will be paying higher bills for the next 30 years. and beyond. The life expectancy of equipment at treatment plants is about 30 years. A new round of upgrades in perpetuity.

      Reply
  8. TG

    One is missing the key driver here.

    Remember: population growth is not some act of God. It is under direct control by the elites.

    Without the post-1970 changes in immigration policy, the population of the Untied States would have stabilized at about 250 million. It has now been deliberately increased by not quite 100 million over that, and will likely pass a half billion by the middle of the century and still growing (and remember, it is not the number of foreign born that matters, it is the total increase in population due to specific polices that matters. Check out “demographic momentum” on wikipedia).

    We keep hearing that adding more people makes wages go up etc. Of course, past a certain point, that’s a lie. Yes to aging infrastructure. But first the water must exist. More people does not cause more rain to fall, and making fresh water in bulk via desalinization is non-economic.

    I continue to propose that it is the almost total censorship of the effects of government policies aimed at maximizing population growth that is responsible for much of the world’s ills. There are places where government policies aimed at growing the population have had clear negative effects on the average worker (Mexico, the United States, the Ivory Coast, South Africa, Syria, Iraq, Iran, England, etc.) but even other countries are effected, as the consequences of too-rapid population growth are censored and not allowed to be discussed and hence the possibility of action is blocked.

    So again, yes there are issues with infrastructure. But even if you think the United States has a moral obligation to accept the entire surplus population of the third world (or perhaps, you like abundant cheap labor), honesty should compel one to mention the clear negative effects of these policies on the average worker.

    Like a spoiled rich kid that does not value money, the abundant resources of the United States have led us to believe that resources are unimportant. As our population gets closer to China’s than to the United States of the 1950’s, we are soon going to learn different.

    And one thing is certain: the people pushing for America to grow will not be the ones to make any sacrifices.

    Reply
    1. Eclair

      Concerning “the clear negative effects (i.e., ‘accepting the entire surplus population of the third world) of these policies on the average worker.

      TG, I share your concerns about too-rapid population growth. And, it has become a no-go area for discussion. I keep remembering university microbiology courses, when we inoculated a petri dish full of a nutritious medium with a tiny batch of bacteria. First, tiny splotches or colonies of bacteria would appear, then spread, then merge, then cover the surface of the medium with one continuous colony. And ….. then the population would collapse, die and decay, as nutrients ran out and the colony was poisoned by their own waste products. It’s how I see the world and it makes me melancholy.

      But … until we drown in our waste and die … all of us are resident in the same gelatinous gloop. Those Mexicans, Somalis, Iraqis who arrive on our shores … the ‘other’…. are just a bit worse off than we are. They are us, in a few years, or decades. We can spend our remaining time hating and fighting for scraps, (and drinkable water) or we can embrace them as brothers and share what we have. I, for one, prefer to die with love, not hate, in my heart.

      And, who is to say that if we recognize the refugee as a fellow member of the 99%, a brother worker, a comrade, we cannot develop into a real resistance. But, first, solidarity.

      Reply
  9. Eureka Springs

    but in Atlanta, where the privatization of water services in part drove up water expenses, the service costs $325.52 per month. Households must make at least about $87,000 for that to be affordable.

    Funny that figure sounds RICH but that’s what two people earning minimum wage at full time hours would be earning had minimum wage risen with inflation since the early seventies.

    We are so far down the rabbit hole. Also, how much would many people be saving if their faucet water were clean and safe so billions weren’t spent on bottled water?

    Reply
    1. katiebird

      I don’t see how this is possible $325/mo !!! It seems insane to me that it would be allowed. … does this mean there is no agency controlling the prices for water service?

      Who can afford that month after month? And how can you afford anything else with that bill facing you.

      Flint… Atlanta… OMG.

      How dare anyone run for reElection? We are being utterly failed.

      Reply
    2. Vatch

      Wait a minute. Your point is correct in principle, but I think the numbers are a little different. The minimum wage has lagged behind the inflation rate by a significant amount, but I don’t think that the correctly adjusted minimum wage for two people would be $87,000 in 2017.

      The minimum wage was $1.45 per hour in 1970, and it’s 7.25 in 2017. For convenience, I used this site (which I hope is accurate):

      http://inflationdata.com/Inflation/Inflation_Calculators/Inflation_Rate_Calculator.asp

      $1.45 in 1970 is equivalent to $9.08. So a person earning $9.08 per hour would earn $363.20 per week, and $18,886.40 per year. Two people would earn $37,772.80. Since the official inflation rate understates the actual rate of inflation, they really should earn more than this, but I strongly doubt that it would be $87,000. Maybe two full time people at the minimum wage would earn $50,000 with proper adjustments for inflation.

      Reply
      1. Eureka Springs

        That calculator would be grossly under representing inflation if I were going from the early 80’s when I earned min wage. Everything from an onion to rent has gone up ten fold or more since then.

        Hugh and others did a realistic/exhaustive examination of figures from 70’s to mid ’00’s about ten years ago… and that, from memory, is what I was working from. Sorry it was all in comments at the time and those old fdl threads are long gone.

        Reply
        1. Carla

          Also, Atlanta privatized their water in 1997. Not surprisingly, it was a disaster. They re-municipalized it in 2003.

          Reply
          1. Praedor

            Ya’ll need to hope TISA passes! IF it passes then once a city like Atlanta privatizes water they would be banned from EVER going back to municiple/public no matter how disastrous the privatization attempt went. A looter ratchet that only goes one way.

            Reply
        2. fred

          Vatch,

          A broken water meter or a leak downstream of it. Based on the water rates on the link I posted $140/month is a couple thousand gallons of water, which I assume also means the sewer usage too. That works out to 14 cents per gallon for treated water to your doorstep and taking the sewage away. That isn’t outrageous. The problem is the amortization of major repair projects that wind up doubling the bill for 2-3 years.

          Reply
          1. Vatch

            Yeah, I guess that’s not outrageous, assuming that $140.00 really is the average water bill. I let myself be misled because it’s more than I pay, but I don’t have a household of 4 people.

            Reply
  10. Enquiring Mind

    California agriculture will come under increasing scrutiny as water-intensive crops like almonds are reviewed. Envision public education methods that show the H2O footprint of various crops, analogous to the carbon footprint, although with more effective presentation.

    Which other parts of the country have similar crop or usage issues that may be low-hanging fruit?

    Reply
    1. Vatch

      Not just almonds. Also rice, as in rice paddies, and alfalfa, most of which is eaten by cattle. There’s a lot of water in a rice paddy!

      Reply
      1. TimH

        There are dry-grow as well as flooded rice varieties. Flooded reduces the need for pesticides, and allows fish farming

        Reply
        1. Vatch

          I did not know about dry-grow rice. I learn something new every day! The alfalfa is still a thirsty crop, though.

          Reply
      2. Lynne

        But alfalfa is highly beneficial as a nitrogen fixing plant. And it doesn’t *have* to be a water hog. SD used to have plenty of alfalfa in non irrigated fields as a rotation crop before the USDA pushed monocultures.

        Reply
    2. Eowyn

      California is blessed with fertile land and a great growing climate. Too bad the average rainfall in the Central Valley makes it a desert. The enormous acreage devoted to thirsty almonds and pistachios, much of it destined for export, cannot be sustainable over the long term. The whole issue of water availability and water rights in the western U.S. is a ticking time bomb. Of course, if this winter’s rain and snowfall is the beginning of a trend, that would help. But who knows what future years will bring.

      Reply
    3. Coram Nobis

      As a Southern California grower it pains me to admit this, but avocados are on that water-guzzling list too. It takes 30 gallons of water to make 1 avocado~~so guacamole lovers beware, that bowl of green goodness will soon be very, very expensive.

      Reply
  11. TomDority

    With few changes the article below – from 1924- is telling;
    Los Angeles, Cal., April, 1924
    STOUOHTON COOLET
    IS THE JAIL THE END?

    Has democracy been found wanting?
    Are American institutions in danger?
    Is there a lowering of personal integrity among public officials?

    These and similar questions thoughtful people are asking them
    selves as they read the testimony delivered
    before Senate committees in Washington.
    Politics has crept into the investigations,
    political leaders are playing for personal and
    party advantages, while the ordinary citizen is confused and distrustful.
    Typical of this state of mind is an utterance of the Christian Century, which says :

    Neither Teapot Dome nor Fall nor any of the
    witnesses comprise, in themselves, the fundamental
    issue at stake. That fundamental issue is the
    present standard of public morality on the part of
    governmental servants of the American people. It
    is a vast deal more important to find out how our
    men in official life today interpret the dictum that
    “public office is a public trust” than it is to send
    Fall or Doheny or anybody else to jail.

    It is not conscious wrongdoing that has
    brought this shame upon us. It is unconscious
    ignorance of the laws of nature.
    That a man in high place, or several men,
    should sell their honor is to be deplored.
    But such men at most are few in number.
    Their act is known to be wrong, both by
    their countrymen and by themselves, and is
    condemned when known. When, however,
    acts of like nature, but of far more frequency,
    are universally committed with no
    moral consciousness of wrong, then indeed
    is it bad for the country.
    Much ado has been made over the transfer
    to private hands of some oil lands that
    had been reserved for the navy. But this
    is the story of the country from the beginning.
    Matchless forests that passed into
    private hands for a trifle, were so completely
    destroyed that the rainfall, has been afected;
    and the government is buying back
    the denuded land at many times what it was
    sold for, in order that it may be reforested.
    The vast public domain was squandered.
    The coal and oil and other minerals have
    gone the same way. And the struggle is
    on for water power. The end of coal and
    oil as a source of power is in sight, and the
    greedy interests that have wasted them are
    determined to get possession of the only
    commercial power left.
    When the struggle for water power began
    there was a question as to terms. Coal
    and oil were cheap, the transmission of cur
    rent was wasteful, and private capital demanded
    long term leases ; but conservation
    ists held out for short leases with the right
    to buy the improvements. A limit of fifty
    years was finally agreed upon. But already
    hydro-electric power has grown so rapidly
    in value that if it be allowed to pass into
    private hands industry will soon be at the
    mercy of those who control the water
    rights.
    Congress and the Administration still
    nibble at the trifling offer Henry Ford has
    made for a hundred-year lease of Muscle
    Shoals; and officials at Washington are
    searching for some excuse to give the Colorado
    River into private hands.
    Henry Ford is a man of remarkable industrial
    achievement, and the people are
    willing to trust him with almost any natural
    power; but he will live at most but a few
    years, while his lease, in other hands, will
    run for a century. California, and the
    southwest, without coal, and with fast-dis
    appearing oil, will soon be wholly dependant
    upon water power. As the ranch owners
    are dependant upon the irrigation companies
    for crops, so industrial plants will
    soon be dependant upon the hydro-electric
    companies for power. The ranchers found
    early in the game that they could not trust
    privately owned service, but had recourse
    to co-operative irrigation development. Can
    there be any doubt of the necessity for publicly
    owned power?
    Los Angeles has the most efficient light
    and power plant in California. It is cutting
    under the private companies. One or the
    other must give way. The decision rests
    with the people. A few men with vast financial
    interests at stake are trying to deceive
    the people into voting with the private companies.
    The friends of public ownership,
    who have no financial interest apart from
    that as citizens, are trying to persuade the
    voters to protect the public rights of the
    future.
    It is not a question of honesty, but of understanding.
    A wise citizenry will not put
    into private hands the vital forces upon
    which their very being depends.

    Reply
    1. Eclair

      Wow! 1924! The Teapot Dome! ” … such men at most are few in number.”

      2017. “Sell your honor?” What a quaint concept! Privatize everything! The purpose of serving in government is to suck out as much money as possible for yourself and your cronies.!

      Yesterday’s commenter: Three possibilities when you are enmeshed in a failing institution: exit, voice your anger, increase your loyalty.

      “That fundamental issue is the present standard of public morality on the part of governmental servants of the American people. It is a vast deal more important to find out how our men in official life today interpret the dictum that “public office is a public trust” than it is to send Fall or Doheny or anybody else to jail.

      It is not conscious wrongdoing that has brought this shame upon us. It is unconscious ignorance of the laws of nature. That a man in high place, or several men, should sell their honor is to be deplored. But such men at most are few in number. Their act is known to be wrong, both by their countrymen and by themselves, and is condemned when known. When, however, acts of like nature, but of far more frequency, are universally committed with no moral consciousness of wrong, then indeed is it bad for the country. Much ado has been made over the transfer to private hands of some oil lands that had been reserved for the navy. But this is the story of the country from the beginning.”

      Reply
  12. perpetualWAR

    Imagine living in Seattle…..having to endure rain for 8 mo of the year……and then further indignity to pay one of the highest water rates because water is our region’s natural resources, so of course, it is shipped elsewhere for $$$$.

    Reply
    1. Enquiring Mind

      Now you know another reason why so much effort went into coffee in Seattle over the years. Gray days, wet or not, sap the energy and life out of mere mortals without some caffeine to jolt them out of the Puget torpor. On rare occasions when the sun peeks through the clouds, offices empty for sun breaks. As the locals say, if you’re lucky, summer falls on a weekend. Too bad those aren’t exaggerations by much :(

      Reply
      1. HotFlash

        I do not understand us humans. Water falls out of the sky, yet we insist on flushing our urine and feces (good fertilizer, properly treated!) , washing our cars and watering our lawns with laboratory-quality water. Is this sane?

        Reply
  13. David, by the lake

    Access to the commons would be a right. Having g water piped into your home, an artifact of human engineering and investment, is not. That said, utility services, as public goods and like all natural monopolies, ought to, by law, be provided at-cost on a not-for-profit basis. But let’s not make things “rights” which are fundamentally not.

    Reply
    1. diptherio

      If the only way you can get access to potable water is through a municipal system, then the difference between a “right to water” and a “right to water out of a pipe” would seem to be a distinction without a difference…just sayin’.

      Reply
      1. David, by the lake

        Public goods and services are one thing, but labelling something as a “human right” is something completely different. Rain cachement is access the commons (water laws in western states would have to be adjusted for this), for example. I absolutely agree that certain services ought to be provided on that at-cost, not-for-profit basis I described, but that is good public policy, not a human right. We have to be careful how we label things. Not everything that is good or useful is a “right”.

        Reply
  14. rc

    Public money used to invest in national infrastructure ought to pay for these water projects.

    The US has plenty of this money created by the Fed to bailout banks and wage perpetual war, but when it comes to actually investing in people, infrastructure and public health there is nothing to go around. Why do we let people die prematurely from lack of access to healthcare? Why do we risk brain damage to our children from risky and crumbling water systems? How do those in power live with the death, sickness and despair their action and inaction cause?

    People need to demand that the US Treasury fund these projects with US dollars at zero interest.

    Reply
    1. diptherio

      Thanks for those!

      From NSFW:

      Stewart Resnick was born in the mid–1930s in Highland Park, New Jersey, into a Jewish-Ukrainian immigrant family. According to Stewart, his father owned a bar and was a violent man. He was also a drinker, a gambler and had close ties to the criminal underworld and the Jewish mob. “My father was a great negative role model. The lessons I got from him were all what not to do,” Resnick told journalist Mark Arax during an interview for a biography that was never completed.

      Stewart left home at age 18, moved out to Los Angeles and worked his way through UCLA law school. He started an incredibly successful janitorial business that generated $7.4 million in annual business and in the early 1970s expanded into the private security business, which was just beginning to boom. In just a few years, Stewart’s firm—American Protection Industries [!!!]—grew into one of the largest private security companies in Los Angeles. API had over 1,000 armed security guards patrolling downtown and the Westside. It operated, installed and monitored burglar and fire alarm systems in thousands of homes. The company was highly connected: it employed former Secret Service agents and for a time was run by a former L.A.P.D. chief of police.

      Very early on, the company scored a lucrative contract to handle security at the international terminal at the Los Angeles airport: API employees ran the security screening gates—what the TSA does now—and guarded incoming international airplanes until they could be inspected by U.S. Customs.

      Talk about blatant. Tell me, what’s the difference between a protection racket and a protection industry? Jeesh…

      Reply
      1. BeliTsari

        Once somebody tells Trump what Papaver bracteatum is, I’m pretty sure “organic” pomegranates, honey and water-intensive nuts will jam Whole Foods with characters straight out of “They Live?” And if the locals start tossing hydrogen bombs at each other, maybe the ensuing nuclear winter will save from the Chinese hoax that’s dropped some of the Central Valley >25′ & we cal all move to Fiji?

        Reply
  15. steelhead23

    Having spent some time in county government I can tell you that by-and-large the land development community, from real estate professionals to subdividers, run most county governments and local units of government like water and san districts. Their decisions tend to favor the land development community. As a result, financing infrastructure also tends to benefit developers at the expense of residents, meaning that the cost of expanding the district (adding more taps) is mostly recouped through use rates, not development charges like tap fees. I would agree that the cost of maintenance and replacement of existing systems should be borne by all users, but system expansion costs should be borne by developers, not existing water users. Sadly, most folks have never gone to a county commissioner’s meeting or board meeting for their local water and san districts so have no idea how they are being fleeced. Believe me, that’s they way they want it.

    Reply
    1. Anon

      This comment is spot on!

      And echoes my more brief comment on treatment plant costs higher up in the scroll.

      Reply
    1. mle detroit

      There is only one political party in Detroit, so the next primary is the only election that matters. Ditto for the state of Michissippi, where there is only one party – the other one – in Lansing.

      Reply
  16. Praedor

    Ugh. All this talk makes me re-re-think EVER moving back into a city. The wife hints she’d like to move back to Salt Lake City where we met and where our kids currently reside when we retire. The population there has been exploding for years (many are formerly from Cali). I couldn’t think of a WORSE place for there to be a population boom than the desert of Utah (and surrounds). All that water needed to keep up while that particular resource is fading away and cannot be magicked into abundance. Thus I resist and argue against moving back to Salt Lake. I live in a wet mid-west rural area now. Our own well with plentiful water, our own septic tank. No water bill, no sewage treatment bill, just how I like it and want to keep it. I could just see us giving up this safe zone and moving back to Utah just in time for the real water shortage issue to start hitting hard and then we’d be screwed, like everyone else living there (including our kids). I tell her that our kids think they will be able to live their lives happily in Salt Lake but I REALLY doubt that. I suspect they WILL become water refugees well before they themselves could ever think of retiring.

    Reply
    1. cheesehead

      In Wisconsin, the state mandates that we pump our septic every 2 years. And the state came around and forced us to dig a new well ($6,000) about 5 yrs ago. We had great tasting water before, now it tastes awful, so we had to put in a RO unit. May have to do an iron removal system too. I’d be happy to have city water.

      We replace an aging septic and the method of deciding what could replace it with was nothing short of contractor voodoo. I swear this is a racket that the septic installers lobbied for in Madison. This state is in love with the mound system and I fail to see what the true advantage is of that system and it takes lots of land, looks horrible, involves pumps and is expensive.

      Reply
  17. Rosario

    This reminds me of Hillary Clinton during the primaries when she was discussing the leaded water in Flint, MI. She, with gusto, stated that the water problem in Flint was a “civil rights” issue. I would concur, but I don’t think her definition of civil rights is in sync with my own. I think similar can be said of countless other liberals. If access to clean, safe water is a civil right, then for me that means that it can be accessed by all citizens no matter their class, race, sexual orientation, gender, etc. Access is universal, equal, and most importantly not part of the market. I’ll bet the farm that Hillary and her supporters are not willing to make such a radical statement.

    This ties in with Michael Hudson’s recent talks where he discusses how political language has been inverted or subverted. Today the IMF is using the term “reform” to restructure the Greek economy and various liberal institutions are using the phrase “civil rights” without acknowledging the enormously radical implications made by the phrase.

    Reply
  18. Clearpoint

    I remember some Ohio state representative no longer in office talking about “water rights” over 10 years ago. The noticeable twinkle in his eyes was dollar signs, as “water rights” to him was an extension of private property rights, not civil rights. Those free market capitalists who own the political process sure love their monopolies, especially the ones where they can squeeze their customers for all they have.

    Reply
  19. Kalen

    The water is critical but only one problem of overall resource wars, yes, not just problems but wars.

    And excerpt from:
    https://sostratusworks.wordpress.com/2015/02/11/engineering-renewable-delusions/

    “As it was predicted over 60 years ago we are already facing [a clandestine war] perhaps, not yet physical but surely economical resource access limitations due to the systematic program of pauperization of world population, stemming from the old fashion elite’s resource hoarding.

    Even in the western world, hundreds of millions of working people or pensioners, facing a dramatic loss of incomes daily, due to the Wall Street gambling, speculation, fraud or deliberated corporatist government policies, are forced to radically cut down on food, the natural gas, electricity, water and/or transportation/medical services and other utilities due to outrageous costs purposefully hiked to offset the continuously collapsing demand.

    [The observed instabilities and the collapse of the global commodity markets are just first signs of the Wall Street realization of the world of natural resource apartheid that they created and the collapse of the global demand it brought.]

    The new habit of turning off refrigerator and the central heating for the winter, turning off the air conditioner during the summer, sitting in the dark room at home with three sweaters on and a winter coat on, or in-home recycling of the toilet bowl and post-wash water as well as the urine in order to convert them into the household cleaning items is already common practice for millions also in so-called richest countries in the world like US.

    The countless millions of victims of joblessness and foreclosures, millions returning home or to relatives, forced to cut down the cost of the resources they need for sustenance including food, cloths and commuting which became unaffordable causing the collapse of demand for gasoline and oil [and consequently variation or collapse miles driven].

    The prices of all the resources the low-income people need to survive are being purposefully hiked [via stealth inflation] by the behemoths of monopoly and globalization in the undeclared war for critical resources.”

    Reply
  20. uncle tungsten

    City users have been subsidizing farmland irrigators since the inception. Read Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner and be devastated at the corruption underlying the USA water schemes.

    This water socialism in reverse and to read that urban people have their water bills hiked up high then cut off is a scandal. The reason a nation supplies water to their populace is to minimize ill health that arises from poor water quality. The medical treatment of ill health is astronomical in comparison to supplying water for drinking and toilet flushing.

    The entire article republished here studiously avoids the principle story of wealth being redistributed from the city user to the rural exploitation of irrigation water. The low cost of water for the irrigators means that they now ignorantly refuse to implement modern water efficient farm practices. The City subsidizes their ignorance!

    Reply

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