In the U.S., Water is Starting to Get Way, Way More Expensive

In the past few years the price of water rose 23%, and water utilities are taking on crushing debt to keep up

Great lakes Huron, Ontario, and Erie
Great lakes Huron, Ontario, and Erie NASA Earth Observatory / ISS

It’s a running joke in some circles that there’s a countdown until the U.S. decides to invade Canada to tie up the northern country’s precious liquid resources. No, not oil—water. Canada holds claim to roughly a fifth of the world’s fresh water, and the U.S. is steadily running out. It would be a cute joke, if water wars weren’t a real thing.

Across the U.S., writes Lakis Polycarpou for Columbia University’s Earth Institute, the price of water is soaring.

According to a Circle of Blue study, from 2010 to 2012, the price of water rose 18 percent in 30 major US cities.

…At the same time, water infrastructure is rapidly deteriorating. In its 2009 report card, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave US drinking water infrastructure a D-, citing 7 billion gallons of drinking water lost daily from leaky pipes, an average of 850 pipe main breaks per day, and an $11 billion annual deficit to replace aged out facilities.

…From 2000 to 2010, average water rates and debt load carried by water utilities rose by 23 and 33 percent, respectively, after adjusting for inflation. One-third of water utilities account for a disproportionate percentage of this increase, with both debt and rate increases of over 100 percent. Half of that top third reported that their debt had increased over 200 percent.

Part of the problem is decaying infrastructure. Another part is that the U.S. is just plain running out of water. Large chunks of the country, particularly the Midwest, rely on drawing up stores of water that had been accumulating underground for thousands of years. These underground stores replenish, slowly, but when you draw out water more quickly than the stores are being renewed, that reservoir drains away. And when you pump non-renewable water up from the ground and let it drain into the ocean, you don’t get it back.

Sprawling human populations in water-scarce areas are driving people to rely on more costly methods of securing fresh water, too. Polycarpou:

As a city with very low annual rainfall, Santa Barbara has in recent years tried to reduce its dependence on a precarious allocation from the Santa Ynez River. In response to a severe drought from 1989 to 1991, the city built an expensive desalination plant which has since been put in “long-term storage mode” and will only be reactivated when demand can no longer be met with current supplies.

In Tampa Bay, Florida, when a falling water table threatened groundwater sources, the utility turned to more expensive surface water. Eventually, it too built a desalination plant, which it paid for in part by raising user water rates.

Fresh water is a finite resource. You can make more, but it’s going to cost you. Hopefully a solution can be found before it costs Canada, too.

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