Rising prices stifle affordability of an essential right: Water

Water flowing from a kitchen faucet.
Proposed legislation would establish an assistance program to help low-income families pay their water bills and prevent shutoffs.

Good morning. It’s Tuesday, March 12. Here’s what you need to know to start your day.

Water is an essential right. But what if you can’t afford it?

Access to safe and affordable water is a fundamental human right. But monthly rates nationwide have been rising, placing financial strain on many low-income households.

Californians are burdened with some of the highest water rates in the country, and families at times must make difficult decisions about whether to pay the water bill, electricity or rent.


Federal legislation introduced by Democratic Sen. Alex Padilla would establish a water assistance program to help low-income families pay their water bills and prevent shutoffs.

“We know that lower-income families are being disproportionately hit with higher and higher water bills,” Padilla said. “Like home energy and nutrition assistance, water rate assistance is crucial for public health and economic prosperity.”

The Times’ Ian James delved deeper into the water rate crisis.

Legislation’s role in water affordability

California implemented a relief program for community water systems over the past few years to address unpaid bills stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. The state legislature expanded shutoff protections for individuals facing difficulty paying their water bills.

The proposed legislation would make permanent the soon-to-be-expiring federal program that provided more than $1 billion in assistance during the pandemic.


Since 2021, more than 1.4 million households nationwide, including 77,000 in California, have received assistance from the Low-Income Household Water Assistance Program.

The program has proved successful in preventing water service disconnections, restoring service after shutoffs and helping those struggling to afford their bills, Padilla says. It’s worth noting that Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed a Senate Bill to establish a water rate assistance program in 2022, citing the absence of “sustainable, ongoing funding.”

Multiple organizations representing water suppliers endorse the bill, deeming it crucial to securing permanent aid for low-income ratepayers. They emphasize that if the program isn’t sustained, “water rate assistance will no longer be part of the federal safety net, putting hundreds of thousands of households at risk of losing their water service.”

Experts like Gregory Pierce, director of UCLA’s Human Right to Water Solutions Lab, urge California to do more to support those unable to pay. He said about 15% to 20% of households statewide need assistance to afford their water bills.

Water prices impacting Californians

Californians are experiencing higher water bills than residents of many other states. But by how much?


After analyzing the rates of more than 2,100 California suppliers, the State Water Resources Control Board determined that the average monthly bill in 2023, based on affordability for a household using a normal amount of water, was $65.85.

Other states average significantly less. Manny Teodoro, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, has tracked the water rates of a sample of about 400 utilities across the country and found that the average monthly bill last year for a typical four-person, single-family household was $44.77. That represented a 25% increase from 2017.

Additionally, water and sewer charges increased around 2.5 times faster than inflation between 1996 and 2018, according to one national survey. Over the past 12 years, combined water and sewer bills have increased by 4.1% per year.

Why water rates are rising

Household rates across the country have increased as utilities invest in upgrading aging infrastructure, securing future supplies and meeting treatment standards for clean drinking water.

“We’ve charged too little for water in most places for a long time, so infrastructure is degraded,” Pierce said, adding that to address this issue, there’s a pressing need to invest in maintenance or replacement.


Water agencies face looming requirements to upgrade treatment technologies to remove contaminants as government agencies adopt more stringent standards.

Climate change and worsening droughts have forced many suppliers to focus on investing in more resilient local water supplies.

Prolonged droughts adversely affect costs if suppliers need to buy a more expensive water supply, pump water from deeper underground or add treatment processes to clean degraded supplies, researchers with the Pacific Institute and the organization Dig Deep said in a recent report.

Over the last decade, water affordability has increasingly been recognized as a problem in California. The repercussions of climate change will disproportionately raise the cost of water for front-line communities, creating barriers to access because of affordability, the study said.

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Have a great day, from the Essential California team


Anthony De Leon, reporting fellow
Kevinisha Walker, multiplatform editor
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