This survey is a first-of-its-kind nationwide assessment of water shutoffs for nonpayment. Food & Water Watch contacted the two largest water systems in each state to request the number of households whose water was shut off for nonpayment in 2016. We received responses back from 73 utilities.
- The average water utility shut off 5 percent of households for nonpayment in 2016.
- Among responding utilities, more than half a million households lost water service for nonpayment, affecting an estimated 1.4 million people in 2016.
- An estimated 15 million people in the United States experienced a water shutoff in 2016.
Overall, there appears to be a regional pattern, with more shutoffs in the South and relatively few in Alaska, Hawaii and the Northeast. The highest water shutoff rates were in Oklahoma, where Oklahoma City and Tulsa discon- nected one in five households for nonpayment. Three cities —Eau Claire, Wisconsin; Leominster, Massachusetts; and Champlain Water District, Vermont — did not shut off any household for nonpayment.
Compared to the cities with the fewest shutoffs, the highest shutoff rates occurred in lower-income cities with higher rates of poverty and unemployment. Water service is exceedingly unaffordable for low-income households in Detroit and New Orleans, in particular. More than one in five households in these cities receive water bills that exceed 9 percent of their income.
Overall, communities of color had higher water bill burdens. This pattern was seen among the cities with the highest and lowest shutoff rates.
Capital improvements are driving high water bills. On average, the cities with the highest shutoff rates were spending 22 percent more per household each year on capital improvements than the cities with the fewest shutoffs, but there is substantial variation in planned improvements. New Orleans (a high-shutoff city) and Honolulu (a low-shutoff city) had the highest per-house- hold improvement costs. They planned to spend $2,700 to $2,800 per residential customer each year.
Local policies are driving high rates of shutoffs. The three utilities with the highest shutoffs gave residents the least amount of time to pay their bills before facing shutoff. In Springdale, Arkansas, which had the third highest shutoff rate, the minimum time between the date the bill was sent and disconnection of service for nonpayment was a mere three weeks. At the other end of the spectrum, Eau Claire, Wisconsin and Leominster, Massachusetts did not use water shutoffs for collection at all.
Private water utilities overwhelmingly refused to respond to our requests (see box on page 3 of the full PDF report). This lack of transparency with privatized systems is a particular concern because these companies charge significantly higher water rates than their government peers, suggesting that affordability might be a bigger problem for their customers.
Local, state and federal officials need to take urgent action to curb the tide of water shutoffs in the face of a growing water affordability crisis:
Local governments can set up affordability programs to tackle the problem head-on and employ best practices to ensure that households have sufficient time and notice to pay their bills prior to disconnection.
States should require all utilities, including privately owned systems, to disclose shutoff and reconnection rates.
The federal government can act to support localities by providing the funding relief needed to ensure that every person in the country has access to safe and affordable water service.