Public Water Systems Can Help the War on Poverty

water flowing from pipe against ...
water flowing from pipe against ...

No army can win a war without good quality water. Dysentery took more lives in the U.S. Civil War than battle wounds. Likewise, the War on Poverty won't be won without healthy and affordable water.

The conversation this week about the War on Poverty is long overdue, especially welcome is the noisy clamor to raise the minimum wage. At the same time, families' budgets swell with multiple expenses. The War on Poverty will be won when some of those can be shrunk, especially those that can be more equitably shared. Let's take a look at water.

An account might start with the nearly $500 average that a U.S. households spends on water. On top of that, figure in their share of the $14 billion that U.S. households spend on bottled water -- to some degree motivated by a lack of trust in public water. Then there are important savings to take stock of: reduced health care costs due to good quality water. Those savings can be significant.

So upon first glance, the news released by the U.S. Conference of Mayors spelling out increased municipal spending for water and sanitation seems highly favorable.

"The historical spending record clearly establishes local government as the dominant investor in public water, and by virtue of the investment, also establishes local government as a critical water environment steward. Combined public water and wastewater investment is estimated to be $1.77 trillion from 1972 to 2010: $981.4 billion for water supply; and, $796.4 billion for wastewater systems."

The mayors' study begins in 1972, when not long after the War on Poverty began, the Clean Water Act was passed during the Nixon administration. It triggered massive public spending in public water.

While government investment in the water commons is terrific news, according to the U.S. Mayors report, "A serious concern for local government is the disproportionate financial impact on families at or below the poverty level ... because user fees command a greater percentage of their annual incomes. This disparate financial impact is regressive."

Not only is it regressive, but the investment is inadequate. The Conference of Mayors estimates that, "investment needs over the 20 year horizon (2008-2028) is likely in the range of $2.8 to $4.8 trillion." Many municipalities have already issued all the bonds they can without ruining their credit ratings. Local taxes and water rates have been rising to pay the costs.

The mayors support "the widely held view by Americans that water is a common good owned by everyone, and government should retain the authority to deliver it locally/regionally." Yet they raise concerns that water is becoming unaffordable, hampered by current rate structures, which can restrict differential pricing for varied users. They call for "a fresh look at local affordability and national water policy."

How can we improve the state of our water commons and guarantee the right to water and sanitation without driving families deeper into poverty? A Forbes article raises the possibility of a clean water trust fund as a solution for how to raise the money more equitably.

"In a 2009 study, the U.S. Government Accountability Office considered how to raise $10 billion annually for the fund and suggested that payment come from industries that profit from water or damage its quality, including those that make beverages, fertilizers and pesticides, flushable products, pharmaceuticals, water appliances and plumbing fixtures."

Such creative cross-subsidies offer an alternative to socking low-income users with "full cost recovery" -- covering all water operator costs with spiraling user charges. Behind such progressive financing is an affirmation that water is a public good, not dissimilar from public education. We all benefit from an educated population and so spread the expense across society. Likewise with water, the public health benefits are enormous. A clean water trust has the benefit of providing disincentives to polluters and is supported by consumer advocacy groups like Food and Water Watch.

At the same time, there are large savings in the water sector through innovation with green or natural infrastructure -- permeable surfaces instead of channeling all storm water into waste water treatment, water recycling, using one grade of water for showers and another for drinking and more. Upstream watershed management -- especially with water utilities at the helm -- also delivers savings, as New York City has proven in its partnership with upstate farmers. These are not simple transition for utilities to make, but there is a new hopeful current emerging.

Worldwide, the links between poverty reduction, public health and access to clean and affordable water are even more dramatic. For the billions of people without clean water and sanitation, climbing out of poverty while carrying a child sick with diarrhea is impossibly unfair.

Fifty years ago, it wasn't uncommon for water hoses to be used against anti-poverty and civil rights campaigners. Following in their footsteps, and taking a cue from Isaiah, we
might try bending those hoses into clean, affordable water for all.


Daniel Moss is Coordinator of Our Water Commons and active in the Reclaiming Public Water Network. He has recently published a report on public water utility investments in water source protection and watershed conservation entitled, "Urban Water Utilities and Upstream Communities Working Together."