Equity & Affordability

Aug. 5, 2020

This editorial letter originally appeared in Water & Wastes Digest Februrary 2020 issue as "Equity and Affordability"

About the author:

Bob Crossen is senior managing editor of WWD. Crossen can be reached at [email protected].

In January, Baltimore became the first major U.S. city to enact a water affordability and equity law aimed at helping the most marginalized citizens have access to affordable water.

This Baltimore bill—the Water Accountability & Equity Act—stages rates depending on household income, meaning those in the community who make more money will pay a higher rate than those at the lowest end of the income spectrum.

I brought up this bill in an industry group on social media and had asked what they thought about the measure. Naturally, there were opposing arguments, and they bear repeating.

First are the concerns of how this will affect the overall community and economy. By making wealthier homes pay more, will this encourage them to leave the city? How do these rates relate to the exact value of treated drinking water?

Naturally, the theory behind this is that the overall cost of water would still be balanced out by rate payers, as the low paying rates will be offset by the higher ones.

While some may detract from a plan like this, there are merits to ensuring affordable access of clean water for all. For instance, that point about the economy could have the reverse effect. If low income people cannot afford their water bills, they will be unable to pay for consumer goods and services, which would negatively impact the economy in the city.

And when it comes down to the cost of water, wouldn’t a flat rate be easier to manage? By instituting these differing levels, the enforcement and management of the program will be a necessary expense. I found this to be an astute point. There likely will be more work to complete in managing this program than before, which could result in additional salaries for workers.

I don’t think that is a bad thing, though. That expense could be shared by the tax base or could be absorbed in the new rate structure.

How do you feel about these kinds of programs? Do you think this is the future of water in the U.S.? Would your community be able to create a similar successful program?