Guest Post by Abigail Holdsclaw
Water infrastructure across the country is aging. There are significant capital needs and funding has not kept pace. To offset the costs of replacing aging infrastructure, many utilities have incrementally increased monthly bills. A 2017 study found that while consumers may not see large increases in their water bills, increases may be detrimental to low-income households. For many low-income customers, even a small increase in the water bill can represent a significant financial burden and financially burdened customers are more likely to become delinquent. Unfortunately, utilities’ most common approach to compel payment from delinquent accounts has been to shut off the water. Despite the negative impact of water shutoffs on both property values and public health, there are no permanent federal or state protections from these shutoff measures. Moreover, federal policy makers are only just beginning to incorporate environmental justice into their decision making.¹
Abigail Holdsclaw, a 2021 graduate of UNC, utilized longitudinal North Carolina water and wastewater data from the Environmental Finance Center’s state rates dashboards to address this policy challenge in her honors thesis in UNC’s Public Policy Department. Motivated by the United States’ water affordability crisis and its documented disproportionate impact on non-white communities,234 her thesis examines disparities in water affordability in North Carolina by racial and ethnic groups via quantitative analysis of nine years of residential water and wastewater billing data. The regression models show a positive correlation between residential water and wastewater bill cost and a county’s percent Black population. While the correlation between water bills and Black population is not statistically significant, the correlation between wastewater bills and Black population is statistically significant. On average statewide, for every one percent increase in Black residents, the wastewater bills increase by $0.02 per month. While this may seem like a small increase, many of the state’s highest water bills are consistently paid by customers clustered in the northeast region of the state where proportions of Black residents are highest. In fact, some counties in the northeast part of the state are more than 60 percent Black. Moreover, this region also has some of the lowest median household incomes.
Utility stakeholders have long understood the variables likely to increase the cost of water and wastewater. For example, small systems face much larger infrastructure costs per account than their larger counterparts. However, Holdclaw’s undergraduate thesis suggests there may be a racial component to disparities in water and wastewater affordability across North Carolina. Understanding the impact of higher water bills on Black North Carolinians can allow policymakers and utility managers to plan for future water and wastewater with environmental justice and equity goals in mind. With shutoff moratoriums ending and a large amount of federal and state money available for water and wastewater infrastructure, policymakers should be cognizant of the racial disparity in the cost of wastewater that this study has illuminated when making decisions.
Abigail’s complete undergraduate thesis can be accessed here.
² Cardoso, D. and Wichman, C. (2020). Water Affordability in the United States. Manuscript submitted to Water Resources Research. 1-24.
³ Jones, P. and Moulton, A. (2016). The Invisible Crisis: Water Unaffordability in the United States. The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. Retrieved September 2, 2020, from http://www.uusc.org/sites/default/files/the_invisible_crisis_web.pdf.
4 Mack, E. and Wrase, S. (2017). A Burgeoning Crisis? A Nationwide Assessment of the Geography of Water Affordability in the United States. Public Library of Science One. https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0169488
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