Amid COVID-19 pandemic, the need for frequent hand-washing collides with soaring water rates

Soapy hands are rinsing off in a steel sink.
Hand-washing is critical to avoiding COVID-19, but some people can’t afford the price of tap water. Photo: Cristina Wright

At a time when hand-washing is critical to preventing the spread of COVID-19, a new study shows water affordability is a bigger problem than previously recognized in a region that borders Lake Michigan — the fifth largest lake on Earth.

Soaring water rates and stagnant income growth over the past decade have made tap water unaffordable for thousands of households in the Chicago metro area, according to a study by the Metropolitan Planning CouncilElevate Energy and Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant. The study focused on a seven-county region in northeastern Illinois, but researchers said the findings mirror national trends.

A near doubling of water rates in greater Chicago over the past decade has forced some residents to choose between paying the water bill or buying food. Some households in the most economically distressed areas must work 100 hours each month just to pay the water bill, according to the study.

“As water rates increase and incomes remain stagnant, many households are struggling to pay their water bill,” said Caroline Pakenham, water program manager at Elevate Energy. “This study is an important first step to highlight growing issues of water affordability in our region and encourage dialogue around potential solutions.”

Most communities in the Chicago metro area have at least one census tract, in red, where residents struggle to pay their water bills.
Courtesy of Metropolitan Planning Council

The study, which was funded by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and others, was completed shortly after COVID-19 was detected in the United States. The findings took on added significance as it spread to all 50 states. Health officials say proper hand-washing is one of the most effective ways to avoid contracting and spreading the potentially deadly virus.

“At this time of a major health pandemic, it’s clear how important water is for maintaining health and hygiene,” said Tim Eder, a program officer at Mott. “Understanding the depth of the problem is the first step in devising solutions that ensure everyone has access to safe, affordable water.”

The high cost of infrastructure upgrades, many of which have been put off for decades, is one reason for water rate increases in many cities, according to the study. Researchers said there are proven methods for developing rate structures with affordability provisions, but not enough utilities use them.

Over the past decade, water utilities in six of the largest Great Lakes cities have issued nearly 400,000 water shutoff notices, according to data analyzed by National Public Radio. Most of those cities have halted water shutoffs to help people cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, but some households are still without service.

Detroit and Flint are among several cities in the Great Lakes basin that shut off water service in recent years when residents didn’t pay their bills. Chicago was a hotbed of water shutoffs until last year, when the city ended the practice.

In March, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer placed a statewide moratorium on water shutoffs and ordered all cities to restore water service to help protect residents from the coronavirus, which causes COVID-19. The state is providing a total of $2 million to help cities comply with that order.

The study of water rates in northeastern Illinois was designed to help communities better understand the scale and scope of affordability issues. It also aims to initiate dialogue about how to address water affordability challenges without draining municipal budgets or putting the cost of water, a necessity of life, beyond the reach of lower income households.

Researchers used several methods to analyze residential water costs, including calculations that determined the percentage of income that the lowest income households pay toward their water bills. Under this approach, a water burden exists if more than 4.5% of annual household income goes toward paying the water bill.

Half the municipalities in the Chicago metro area have at least one census tract where the lowest income earners are “water burdened,” according to the study. The problem affects households in urban, suburban and rural areas.

“Our research revealed that more people than we thought are vulnerable to water burden, and the problem is widespread,” said Josh Ellis, vice president of the Chicago-based Metropolitan Planning Council. “We were surprised by the extent of it.”

The study also looked at water affordability through the lens of how many hours the lowest income households must work — on a monthly basis — to pay their water bill. The hours-worked analysis, based on groundbreaking research by Texas A&M associate professor Manuel Teodoro, is a more illustrative way of explaining affordability issues. It is now part of a water data dashboard the researchers created.

Repairing outdated water infrastructure, like these pipes in Flint, Michigan, is driving up water rates in many cities across the United States.
Photo: Cristina Wright

The dashboard, which provides additional context and characteristics for each community in the study, also illustrates the disparity between water rate increases and income gains in northeastern Illinois over the past decade.

In the community of Harvey, an economically distressed suburb on Chicago’s south side, the average water bill increased by 94% between 2008 and 2018, while average income in the community decreased by 14%, according to the study. In Lake Forest, a wealthy suburb on Chicago’s north side, water rates increased by just 7% during the same period, while average income increased by 37%.

The result, according to the study: the lowest income households in Harvey must work an average of 100 hours each month to pay their water bill, while the lowest income households in Lake Forest can pay their water bill with an average of three hours of work each month.

Researchers said water bills vary widely across the Chicago metro area and are impacted by several factors, including different water sources, treatment costs, infrastructure age, miles of pipes, metering technology and water service contracts with other communities.

Officials at the Metropolitan Planning Council said the Mott-supported study helped Chicago develop a program to help low income residents keep up with water bills. That program, which began in March, provides reduced rates on water bills, eliminates late payment penalties and water shutoffs, and provides debt relief for those who qualify. It’s expected to help about 20,000 households.

The issues of drinking water safety and affordability were thrust into the national spotlight by the Flint water crisis. In response to Flint’s crisis, the Mott Foundation expanded its environmental grantmaking to focus on water affordability and safety.

“The northeastern Illinois study is a great example of leadership from our grantees on a public health imperative — access to safe and affordable water,” Eder said. “The lessons they learn also may help communities in other states address these issues.”