Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Water, Detroit and the Essentials of Life

by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

Recent news accounts of the massive water shut-offs by the City of Detroit has drawn national and international attention to this essential utility that we sometimes take for granted. Over 17,000 residents have had their water shut off in that city for non-payment. About 12% of the 90,000 Detroit utility customers are delinquent by more than 60 days, and nearly half of the water customers are behind in payments (the latter fact according to an LA Times report). Since April of this year the city has targeted shut offs for 4,000 residents per week who are $150 or more in arrears.

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The delinquency rates aren't new. Detroit is a shrinking city with lots of poor residents left behind. The city is bankrupt. The aggressive enforcement measures towards those behind in their bill is new. City management official claim that the water and sewer utility has been plagued by corruption, incompetence and inadequate maintenance for decades, and is seriously in debt. The utility's bond rating is Baa with $5.4 billion in bond obligations. Moody's Financial Ratio Analysis places the utilities debt ratio at around 90%.

Detroit is currently run by an appointed emergency manager selected by the Governor under a controversial new Michigan law. The emergency manager supersedes all elected authority in the city and has nearly absolute power. Pressure to shut off delinquent residential water customers comes under his authority. 

The move to turn off the water is controversial on several levels. Delinquent commercial and industrial customers are apparently not being targeted for cut offs. Residents claim their bills are excessive and State assistance isn't forthcoming with any assistance. Community organizations have appealed to the United Nations. The U.N. recognizes access to water as a basic human right and holds that it is a violation of human rights to cut off people who legitimately cannot pay. The Detroit authorities claim that many residents intentionally don't pay water bills, thus contributing to the crisis, a claim that citizen advocacy groups deny. There are rumors that the municipal owned utility might be sold to a private company, raising suspicions that this has been the plan all along. The water shut off policy has lead to angry street protests.

To understand Detroit's situation it is helpful to step back first and look more broadly at water utilities here and abroad.

Water Utility Rates are on the Rise
An article last year by Brett Walton at the "Circle of Blue" reported that: "Water prices in 30 major U.S. cities again grew at a pace faster than inflation, according to Circle of Blue’s annual survey of water rates for single-family residential customers. Water prices increased an average of 6.7 percent in these metropolitan areas, a slower rate than in recent years but well above the 2.1 percent increase in the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Price Index for 2012. The median increase in water prices was 6.2 percent."

A 2000 survey by the U.S. Census Bureau found that, "The average annual cost of water and waste water for a household that pays directly for service is $476 per year, ranging from $334 in Nebraska to $721 in Hawaii." That figure works out to about $40 per month while an EPA website says: "American household spends, on average, only $523 per year on water and waste water charges... " That works out to a U.S. average of $43.58 per month for water and sewer.

In a recent USA TODAY article entitled "Nation's water costs rushing higher" it was reported that: 
"While most Americans worry about gas and heating oil prices, water rates have surged in the past dozen years, according to a USA TODAY study of 100 municipalities. Prices at least doubled in more than a quarter of the locations and even tripled in a few.[snip] Monthly costs topped $50 for consumers in Atlanta, Seattle and San Diego who used 1,000 cubic feet of water, a typical residential consumption level in many areas.

There is also a water and sewer industry report prepared in 2012/2013 by Black and Veatch, a private firm. This report says the cost of water in Seattle, for example, was $8.19 per 1.000 gallons, not including the sewer charges. The combined monthly bill for sewer and water in Seattle was $177.93 per month for residential customers using 7,500 gallons, according to this report.

Meanwhile in Detroit, according to the Black and Veatch report, the monthly water and combined sewer and water rates for residential customers using 7500 gallons per month was $24.12 and 70.89 respectively. So which figures are correct?

It turns out that water and sewer utility prices are deceptively difficult to understand or to compare from city to city. There are different units of measurement, different seasonal schedules, peak and off-peak metering and different rate structures. Also, in cities especially, water and sewer rates are separately billed but inseparable because water use is the measure of sewer use in most cases. Billing is combined. Sewer rates are generally higher, often double the water rates. Comparing water pricing without including sewer pricing can be very misleading. Finally, to get a full picture of a municipal utility overall, it is important to compare the rates for commercial water/sewer uses and the wholesale rates the utility charges industries.

An Apples to Apples Comparison
The table below directly compares the published water and sewer rates for Detroit and Seattle (converted to dollars/1,000 gallons). Seattle was selected for comparison because it was one of the cities mention in the USA Today article as having the highest rates. The data is from both city websites. 

At first look it appears that Seattle water and sewer prices are significantly higher than in Detroit. The average Seattle resident uses 3,740 gallons of water per month for a combined water/sewer bill of $112/mo. compared with $62/mo. in Detroit. But when you take a closer look you see that Seattle has a two tier residential rate. The published rate is for residents who can afford it while those families making less than 70% of the city's median income receive a 50% discount. The discount only applies to low wage families who aren't eligible for HUD (Section 8) federal assistance, and the municipal utility actively helps low wage customers apply for federal aid if eligible. They also have programs to help families conserve water and they have very flexible payment plans for any residents who fall behind according to the spokesperson with whom I talked. Shutting off water to a customer would not be considered for residents who owe less than around $1,000.

Detroit, a city with a median family income 25% lower than Seattle, has flat rates. It offers no low income discounts. As a result, the average low income water/sewer bill in Detroit is higher than in Seattle.

To complete the look at water and sewer utilities in these two cities it is important to compare rates for retail commercial and wholesale water customers as well. The information on the websites is a little more difficult to extract in this area. The graph below is my best attempt. 

What jumps out here is the different rate structures in these two cities. Commercial rates in Seattle are somewhat higher than in Detroit, the monthly minimum and maximum wholesale facility charges are significantly higher. Seattle also has a peek commercial water rate that is higher than off-peak to encourage conservation. Meanwhile the difference in the maximum and minimum facility charges in the two cities is 13 times and 38 times higher in Seattle. This suggests that there may be some latitude for Detroit to raise commercial and wholesale water/sewer utility rates to help offset the current financial short fall. Additionally, the Detroit utility could also consider raising residential rates for customers who can afford the increase and discounting rates for low wage earners, as Seattle does.

In the meantime, Detroit should look at the creative collection alternative already practiced in other states and try to find effective alternatives to shutting off water to so many of the residents they are honor bound serve. Access to water is an essential human right and cutting off resident from water should be a last resort. Just reviewing the rate structure suggests possibilities that may not have been considered yet.

A Global Perspective
How do U.S. water rate compare with the cost of water in other cities around the world?

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development ( OECD ) conducted two surveys of residential water tariffs in 1999 and in 2007-08, using a reference consumption of 15 cubic meters per household per month. The 2007-08 survey covered more than 150 cities in all 30 OECD member countries. The survey does not claim to be representative. The OECD survey was complemented by a survey of the industry information service Global Water Intelligence (GWI) conducted in 2007-2008 in parallel with the second OECD survey. The 2008 GWI survey covered 184 utilities in OECD countries and 94 utilities in non-OECD countries. GWI has repeated its survey every year from 2009 to 2012, increasing the number of utilities surveyed to 310 in 2012.

When you convert the OECE findings to US gallons the results indicate that the average water rate in the 310 global cities surveyed is $7.50/1,000 gallons. The range of water rates vary greatly from $0.11 per 1,000 gal. in Saudi Arabia, to $34.86 per 1,000 gal. in Denmark. Then there are also countries, such as Ireland, where water is delivered to households free of charge.

The benchmark for monthly water use in the OECD survey was 15 cubic meters per month, or 3,963 gallons per month, compared with 7,481 gallons per month in the United States. As the graph below shows, U.S. households use more water than do households in most other countries. In the examples above, the difference represents an 88% higher rate of water use in the U.S.

To complete the comparison it is important to acknowledge that higher volumes of water used per household in the US lowers the cost per gallon. In the USA TODAY article, greater conservation of water by customers was named as one of the reasons for higher water rates. When you factor in the average water use in the US with the benchmark estimate of average monthly use in the OECD study, residents in Atlanta, Seattle and San Diego are paying approximate $50 per month for water while residents in foreign cities are paying about $30 per month.

If U.S. water consumption dropped to the lower global levels, residents in the cities mentioned above would pay about $27 dollars per month. However, lowering water use that much in the U.S. would significantly raise the cost per gallon. There are so many variables and assumptions in all of the underlying data that this is a rough guess.

Keep in mind also that the cost of water for the data cited here is for cities, yet it isn't clear if the figures given include sewer costs. The quality of sewer systems and their associated costs vary greatly, both nationally and across the globe. The best that we can gather from this very rough comparison, then, is the impression that current water rates in the U.S. are somewhat comparable with average global rates.

Water is an essential part of our daily life and a human right. It is a finite resource that is growing in scarcity. Social and environment forces are combining to raise water prices everywhere. The trend in rising prices is likely to accelerate as U.S. water conservation become more essential to meet our basic water needs, and this article doesn't even touch on agricultural where most of our water is used. With scarcity comes increased commercial opportunities and there will be growing pressure to privatize municipal water utilities for profit. Balancing commercial interests with human needs and human rights is a conversation we need to have. Increasing public awareness is critically important for our future and the media will need to do more and better reporting to inform the public.


  1. Nice write up, Brian, of a newly controversial issue. This is absolutely my wheelhouse right here, given my job working as an energy consultant for multifamily buildings in NYC and all

    In days past, water seemed like it was free. NYC has experienced a tripling of combined water/sewer charges over the past decade. The impact is that W/S combined charges are now typically either #1 or #2 on a MF building owner's total utility spend. W/S charges typically exceed the total spend for heating/hot water fuel in natural gas heated buildings, and equal the total spend on heating/hot water fuel for oil heated buildings. As the prices have gone up, its obviously become a greater proportion of the annual operating budget for a given building. Building owners/operators are left to make very difficult choices given the rising expense. This is exacerbated in affordable housing units, where capital resources are scarce (and the buildings are often run by dirt bags). Unfortunately, as you point out, sometimes the tap goes dry, which is never the right option.

    Something you aren't hitting on here but is very relevant to the topic is the issue of metering. I can only speak to NYC where NO multifamily buildings are sub-metered for domestic water use (not sure whats going on in Detroit or elsewhere) but generally, areas with older building stocks will NOT have water sub-metered because of considerations in the plumbing configuration dating to original construction. That said, the fact is that affordable housing buildings use water at a much greater intensity than do market rate buildings....and somebody is left holding the bill for that.

    Electrical sub-metering has historically been a very hot-button issue, but the proof is in the pudding: buildings that sub-meter in-unit electricity see whole-building energy intensities reduce by up to a third. Sub-metering electricity drives accountability and leads to conservation. In order to achieve local, regional, national, and global goals for carbon reduction, we can't have people leaving the lights on all the time, or running their air conditioners 24/7, even when its January. That is exactly what happens in buildings master-metered for electricity. And the uncomfortable truth is that this type of thing happens more in subsidized housing than anywhere else.

    Logic holds that a similar strategy of sub-metering could be implemented with respect to domestic water consumption. As your chart shows, the US uses way more water per dwelling unit than anywhere else...and this is worse in affordable housing. Low-flow plumbing fixtures only get us so far. If people aren't paying the cost of their consumption, they do things like leave the faucets running 24/7. I've seen it. When water is not commoditized, people tend to have a total disregard for it. No bueno. Sub-metering of domestic water is an available option for minimizing our national footprint when it comes to water consumption. It won't be popular, but its hard to argue that people should pay for what they consume. Maybe a policy option is to mandate that savings resulting from water sub-metering must be passed back to the residents...or something. But the numbers don't add up if people are allowed to consume water with no accountability and then not pay their bills....anybody can see THAT won't work out well.

    This whole "water thing" is a big deal.


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