The Cost of Clean Water

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How much should clean water cost?  Should I have to pay more for my water and sewer bill than I do for cable TV?  What is the true value of having clean and safe rivers, lakes and estuaries?  These are important questions that garner significant and ongoing discussion, but one thing is clear: the cost of clean water continues to rise.  In fact, for more than a decade now, the cost of providing clean water or sewer services to the Nation has been increasing.  NACWA recently released its 2014 Cost of Clean Water Index Survey, which the Association has published annually since 1992 to track average annual single-family residential sewer service charge increases.  This year’s Index indicates that the average cost of clean water services rose 4.1 percent in 2014, more than double the rate of inflation.

This continues a trend that NACWA has observed for the past 12 years, with sewer service charge increases outpacing the rate of inflation in every survey.  These increases have resulted in a near doubling of the average annual charge since 2002. The national average amount that a single-family residence pays for wastewater collection and treatment (i.e., the sewer service charge) is now $448 per year, up from $435 in 2013. 

So what does this tell us?  For some, $448 per year for clean water sounds like a bargain.  But the national average annual charge only tells part of the story.  It masks some of the acute challenges faced by individual communities, in some cases with annual sewer service charges exceeding $1,000 – that’s close to $100/month just for wastewater treatment.  To get a more detailed picture of the situation, the Cost of Clean Water Index Survey report includes national and regional data, including maximum reported charge values for each EPA Region, in supplemental data tables. 

As clean water utilities continue to work diligently to provide high quality services to their ratepayers and meet their Clean Water Act mandates, they must continually strike a balance between generating the necessary revenues and being responsive to the impacts their rates have on individual customers.  In addition to current charges, the Index also examines projected increases.  As in past years, the 2014 Index indicates that the cost of clean water for many communities is expected to increase, on average, 4 to 5 percent per year for the next five years.  Compliance with consent decrees was the top reason cited by agency respondents for double digit rate increases, but other drivers included new plant construction and plant/infrastructure improvements. 

So how much should clean water cost?  This will continue to be a hotly debated topic.  Many argue that we still have a long way to go before clean water utilities are recovering the full value of the services they provide.  But what is clear is that the Nation’s clean water utilities continue to make progress in raising the revenues they need to provide clean water.  There are difficult times ahead as more communities start to push up against the limits of affordability, but if history is any indication, the clean water community is up to the task.  

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