Reality Check | ecoWURD | radio
Cleveland-based equity journalist and Report for America Corps member Conor Morris of the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative joined ecoWURD on Reality Check with Charles Ellison to discuss the troubling rise in public water rates. Water bills are rising fast, especially in heavily distressed low-income and frontline Black communities and have been doing so over the past three decades. Conor has written extensively about this problem in Cleveland and is completing recent reporting on the issue in Philadelphia. What’s explaining high water bills? “The cost of infrastructure is high,” explains Morris. “The rising cost of goods also triggers a rise in the cost of water. Recently, the pandemic may have created a moment when governments justify the rate increases. And when city councils bring these rate increases, they say, ‘Oh, we’ve got to replace these aging systems,’ and they make the increases without community input.”
Morris has watched Philadelphia’s Tiered Assistance Program – also known as “TAP” – with some interest and was recently compelled to investigate it: TAP is the only fully blown income-based municipal water bill assistance program in the nation. “In Philadelphia, with TAP, of course it is costly,” Morris adds. However, do water companies really see or worry about decreases in their revenue? “The water department is realizing that there is some return on investment because the people who are low-income are now able to pay their bills every month because it’s been adjusted according to their income. It’s actually affordable.”
According to a recent analysis by The Guardian “water bills have risen 80 percent in the past decade.” Water bills in Philadelphia, for example, rose $318 between 2010 and 2018; in August, Philadelphia water bills jumped by nearly 4 percent and are expected to increase by more than 10 percent over the next two years. Can TAP participants keep up with that?
More from The Guardian analysis: “America’s growing water affordability crisis comes as the Covid-19 pandemic underlines the importance of access to clean water. The research shows that rising bills are not just hurting the poorest but also, increasingly, working Americans.
“More people are in trouble, and the poorest of the poor are in big trouble,” said Roger Colton, a leading utilities analyst who was commissioned by the Guardian to analyze water poverty. “The data shows that we’ve got an affordability problem in an overwhelming number of cities nationwide that didn’t exist a decade ago, or even two or three years ago in some cities.”
Water bills exceeding 4% of household income are considered, for this analysis, unaffordable.”