The idea that someone else is responsible for the cost of a community’s water system is enticing but risky. It is dangerous to think that someone else will care more about a community’s water system than those who depend on it.”
Council members Kathryn Sorensen and Manny Teodoro, along with the Director of Navajo Nation Division of Natural Resources, Bidtah Becker, recently collaborated to comment on the monthly water bill. The three co-authors made the argument that community water systems form the foundation of public health, economic opportunity, and quality of life and bills should be paid accordingly by the communities that utilize the systems.
The Hill: In Praise of the Monthly Water Bill
BY KATHRYN SORENSEN, BIDTAH BECKER AND MANNY TEODORO, OPINION CONTRIBUTORS – 12/28/22 1:00 PM ET
The cost of delivering safe, clean tap water to every household and business in a community is massive. In fact, it may be among the most expensive of all human undertakings. That is why only the wealthiest countries have achieved it at high rates and why 2 billion people on our planet still lack it.
Paying the monthly bill that comes with good tap water service is unpleasant, but it beats the alternatives. While it would be nice if some benevolent entity would bear the cost of delivering safe, clean tap water, the reality is that communities that rely on someone else to pay for their water systems often have inadequate or failing service. Indeed, there are plenty of people who would love to pay a water bill because it would mean that they have access to a functioning community water system. Instead, many Americans must haul their own water, depend on contaminated household wells or rely on bottled water handouts on the street.
There are around 50,000 community water systems across the United States, and most are funded by the people they serve through water charges. Yet, local control of and funding for community water systems is not universal. Some people and some other parts of the world reject the idea of families paying for water service and instead fund community water systems out of national coffers. Left to compete against other worthy national priorities, these systems often wither from lack of sufficient funding. For instance, Ireland ended domestic water charges in the 1990s. They subsequently watched their pipelines deteriorate and leak at appalling rates and are now attempting to reinstate water charges.
While it would be nice if some benevolent entity would bear the cost of delivering safe, clean tap water, the reality is that communities that rely on someone else to pay for their water systems often have inadequate or failing service.
The story is similar in communities where local leaders avoid raising water rates and kick the aging water infrastructure can down the road for fear of reprisal at the next election. Water systems are built to last for generations; elections typically run on two to four-year cycles. Where politicians put off needed investments, water often is not available to every home, deliveries are unreliable and the quality is suspect. Citizens turn to bottled water or sugary drinks instead, at a cost hundreds of times higher than what they would pay for tap water. A vicious cycle of inadequate investment and lack of community support undermines public health for everyone. We recently saw this cycle play out in Jackson, Mississippi. Water inequity can occur anywhere, but water equity can only occur where there is an adequately functioning and adequately funded community water system.
National funding of drinking water systems would force water infrastructure and operations to compete with every other federal priority for the money — Medicare, Social Security and national defense to name a few. The recent increase in federal spending on water infrastructure is only a small fraction of the need. Unless we cut our military and entitlement spending significantly and permanently dedicate the money to community water systems, federal funding simply will not be enough to pay for the high costs of local water systems across this country.
The idea that someone else is responsible for the cost of a community’s water system is enticing but risky. It is dangerous to think that someone else will care more about a community’s water system than those who depend on it. Bursts of aid from government, a non-profit or a kind benefactor may help temporarily, but not over the long term. There will always be a role for limited, carefully targeted federal funding for water infrastructure in support of water equity; federal funds should target rural areas with small or shrinking populations and other communities with extreme poverty, for example. But federal funding has been and ought to remain a complement to a locally funded water sector. In fact, the prospect of bailouts in the future could create a perverse incentive for local leaders to underinvest in these critical systems. Running a drinking water system to failure and then asking for external funding is not an acceptable strategy, nor is postponing necessary increases in water charges until after the next election.
We should support customer assistance for needy households because we must ensure water equity. But in the end, we are best served — literally and figuratively — by paying the monthly water bill.
Community water systems form the foundation of public health, economic opportunity, and quality of life. There is no greater effort that is more worthy of the cost. In the U.S., we have a practice of paying for our community water systems at the local level, and it is in our interest to uphold it. We should support customer assistance for needy households because we must ensure water equity. But in the end, we are best served — literally and figuratively — by paying the monthly water bill.