In 787 communities served by the United States’ largest utilities, 17% of households struggle to afford basic water services, according to a new analysis.

Nearly half the US population lives in the communities covered by the analysis, which appears in the journal PLOS Water. The analysis shows that 28.3 million people in those communities live in households that spend more than one day each month working to pay for water services and sanitation services.

“Safe, reliable water services are essential for everyone to thrive, but a substantial number of Americans may be finding them difficult to afford,” says lead author Lauren Patterson, senior fellow at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment, and Sustainability. “When costs rise faster than incomes, it strains the budgets of a wide swath of US households already struggling to make ends meet, as well as utilities trying to adequately serve their customers.”

Utilities in the United States receive limited federal or state investment to cover the costs of infrastructure, treatment, operations, and maintenance. Instead, they largely rely on fees charged to households and businesses that access their services. While costs have steadily risen for utilities over decades, their customer bases have seen a widening gap between higher- and lower-income households.

Over nearly two years starting in 2020, the Aspen Institute and the Water Policy Program at Duke’s Nicholas Institute convened a series of discussions with US water leaders to address the economic, environmental, and equity concerns around water affordability. A smaller roundtable group met in late 2021 and early 2022 to develop principles and recommendations to help make water services reasonably accessible for everyone while keeping utilities solvent.

One of the key findings of the roundtable is that “the affordability challenge is inadequately defined and measured.” The Duke research team set out to address that with the PLOS Water study.

Read the full article about water access at Futurity.