Latest Post, Water

America’s hidden water affordability crisis


leaky-faucet

 

By Ciara O’Rourke on Mar 5, 2017 6:00 am

When Elizabeth Mack wondered about a future in which Americans wouldn’t be able to pay for water, a couple of colleagues waved her off. “Don’t be ridiculous,” they said. But the idea niggled at Mack, an assistant professor at the Department of Geography, Environment, and Spatial Sciences at Michigan State University. And in January, in an article published in the science journal PLOS ONE, she asked a new question: Is there a burgeoning water affordability crisis in the United States?

Mack, along with research assistant Sarah Wrase, determined that if water rates increase at projected amounts over the next five years, the percentage of households that can’t pay their water bills could triple from 11.9 percent to more than a third. Nearly 14 million households nationwide already struggle to afford water services. An additional 27.18 million — or 8.5 percent of the country’s population — could soon face the same challenges.

“I don’t think we think about this, about what it would mean to not have running water,” Mack told Fusion. Of course, some Americans have experienced it. Water affordability is becoming an increasingly critical issue in cities across the country, including Philadelphia, Atlanta, Seattle, and Detroit. In Philadelphia, an estimated four out of 10 water accounts are past due. Atlanta and Seattle have some of the highest water rates in the country. And in Detroit, a campaign to cut off delinquent residents has stopped water and sewage service for 50,000 households since 2014. It’s a reality Mack thinks Americans in other parts of the country could face.

“Any place with shrinking city characteristics, any city where we have a hollowing out of a downtown core that used to be quite vibrant” could be in trouble, she said. That’s the case in Detroit, where a declining population has left fewer households to shoulder the costs of water services.

The cost of replacing water systems built around World War II are projected at more than $1 trillion over the next 25 years across the country. Prices will be even higher if cities tap private companies to provide water services because they tend to charge higher rates than public providers. A majority of Americans get their water from public providers, but in Atlanta, where the privatization of water services in part drove up water expenses, the service costs $325.52 per month. Households must make at least about $87,000 for that to be affordable.

Because public utilities can only charge customers as much money as it takes to recoup their costs, Mack said, it can be harder for them to finance new infrastructure — but their rates also tend to be lower than private providers that don’t have the same constraints. Still, a 2014 report by Corporate Accountability International and Public Services International Research Unit questioned whether it’s appropriate to tap private companies to shore up infrastructure projects. “No matter how the private sector frames its intentions, its priority is market development over community development, profit maximization over the public interest,” the report states.

Other drivers behind rising water prices include increasingly rigorous water quality standards, said Laura Feinstein, a senior research associate at the Pacific Institute, a global water think tank based in Oakland. As federal laws are updated to reflect new contaminants, water utilities have to spend more money to treat the water to keep it safe for consumers. Extreme weather events associated with climate change, such as droughts and floods, are also expensive for the systems to manage.

But there are ways for both providers and people to curb costs, she said. As utilities look for new water sources to accommodate population growth, they can turn to storm water capture or gray water reuse instead of costlier dams, reservoirs, and desalination plants. And utilities should be mindful that per capita water use doesn’t necessarily increase as populations do thanks to more efficient appliances and cultural shifts among residents who might water their lawns less.

“In reality, per person water use just keeps going down over time, at least in California,” Feinstein said.

Some utilities have worked to develop effective bill discount programs to focus their efficiency programs on lower-income customers. Offering a rebate for a low-flush toilet, for example, is only an option for people who can already pay for a big investment like that, Feinstein said. But giving customers a discount upfront makes it more affordable.

Water affordability is already a serious challenge for low-income people in the United States, Feinstein said. In one study that looked at a sample of communities in California, the institute found that about 5 percent of households had incomes under $10,000 and were spending around 5 percent of their income on water.

In California, at least, laws restraining public utilities from hiking rates higher than the cost of recovery can also hamper efforts to offer discounts to low-income customers, Feinstein said, “because they can’t charge more affluent customers a little more in order to fund low-income discounts.”

For people already living in poverty — 40 percent of the population in Detroit — any increase in a water cost will strain a family’s finances, said Randy Block, director of the Michigan Unitarian Universalist Social Justice Network. He and others in the faith community are trying to raise money to help needy residents pay for water. He thinks water should be recognized as a human right in Michigan just as the United Nations General Assembly defined it in 2010. He likened the city shutting off water for delinquent customers to a war on poverty, and he believes similar skirmishes will play out across the country as income inequality grows.

“Detroit is the canary in a coal mine,” Block said.

Mark Fancher, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Michigan, said unaffordable water has been a “pretty massive problem” in Detroit for 10–15 years. The practical result of shut-offs, he said, is residents relocating. While there are hardship extensions for residents who have fallen behind on their bills but are also suffering from a serious medical condition, according to Fancher, the system could be a lot better: Residents often don’t know about it, or their applications are denied. Other times, they might receive bills for water they didn’t use or not get the bills at all, he said.

“The argument has been made that an affordability plan for the city of Detroit would be a really helpful thing for the struggling utility,” Fancher said. “Because even though people who take advantage of it may not be paying full market rate for water, they’ll be paying more than nothing, which will at least bring in some significant amount of money that right now they’re not getting at all.”

He questioned how seriously the city is interested in water affordability. The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department did not respond to questions about water affordability and shut-offs in the city, but The Detroit News reported last month that officials expect a new rate structure that rewards low water use will reduce the burden on low-income residents. In turn, said Marcus Hudson, the department’s chief financial officer, their probability of paying will increase.

Mack thinks that governments, utilities, and consumers will need to work together to solve the growing problem of water affordability.

“How can we fix this infrastructure and how can we finance it together?” she said. She cautions against alarmist responses to her study, which, she said, “is not meant to be an activist piece.” Rather, she said her research highlights a quiet water crisis that many Americans are aware of in developing countries but don’t consider in the United States. She doesn’t think anyone appreciates the scope of infrastructure problems here and, she said, Americans should be watching Detroit warily.

“I would hazard a guess that most people don’t know how much water they use,” she said. “I’d encourage them to do some self-education.”

Feinstein is agnostic on whether it’s an increasing problem. The article, leaning on the Environmental Protection Agency’s average consumption estimates, assumes the average household uses 12,000 gallons per month. “That might be more than people really need to meet their basic needs,” she said.

But she agrees that water affordability is a problem. Other countries, such as France, Australia, and South Africa have better programs in place to make sure low-income residents can pay for water, Feinstein said. She thinks California is leading the way with legislation that calls for the State Water Resources Control Board to study how to develop low-income assistance rates statewide. As far as she knows, it would be the first such program of its kind if it’s implemented but, she said, it should be nationwide.

“When people don’t have access to the water that they need, it compromises their health. It means they end up having to make choices between paying for things like medical care and paying for food and paying for water,” Feinstein said. “Water is essential for life. People should be able to get the water they need a price they can afford it.”

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ATTENTION!, Latest Post, Water

After a toxin from blue-green algae shut down Toledo’s water system, regulators in Kentucky and Indiana take a look at their states’ drinking water utilities.


Kentucky steps up response to toxic algae risks

James Bruggers, jbruggers@courier-journal.com  2:04 p.m. EDT August 15, 2014

When toxic algae left 500,000 people in the Toledo, Ohio, area without drinking water for two days this month, one of Kentucky’s top environmental regulators took notice.

“I was sitting there on a Friday evening, hearing various things from various counterparts, and I was thinking this can happen in my state,” recalled R. Bruce Scott, commissioner of the Kentucky Department for Environmental Protection. “What are we doing to be prepared?”

First thing the following Monday, Scott put that question to his staff, and Kentucky officials have been working since to get answers by combing through documents filed by many of the state’s 467 public drinking water systems, and reaching out to some with questions.

The inquiry steps up Kentucky’s response to its emerging problem of toxic algae blooms, first documented in the state in late 2012 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at Taylorsville Lake.

The review puts drinking water safety front and center, in addition to state and Army Corps concerns about recreational exposure to blue-green algae — a cyanobacteria that can produce toxins causing skin or eye irritation, nausea, flu-like symptoms and liver damage.

The blooms occur with sunlight, slow-moving water and too many nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. They’re made worse by pollution from sewage treatment plants, septic systems and runoff from fertilized farms and lawns.

COURIER-JOURNAL

Toxic algae makes a comeback at Kentucky and Indiana lakes

For the second year in a row, Kentucky and the corps have issued recreational advisories on some lakes because of the blooms. In all, 10 Kentucky lakes carry the warnings, including Barren River, Nolin River, Green River, Rough River and Guist Creek lakes.

None is closed to swimming, fishing or boating. Instead, authorities advise not swallowing lake water and washing well after swimming.

Source water concerns

In response to a Kentucky Open Records request, state officials acknowledged 10 public drinking water systems serving thousands of customers in Kentucky are drawing water from lakes with algae advisories.

They include the Shelbyville Water and Sewer Commission, Edmonson County Water District and the Grayson County Water District.

State officials said they know of no immediate drinking water threats from algae anywhere in Kentucky. And officials with the Louisville Water Co. — which provides water to about 850,000 people in Louisville and parts of Bullitt, Nelson, Oldham, Shelby and Spencer counties — said they do not have any issues with toxic algae.

But state officials said they want all Kentucky drinking water providers to be ready to handle algae problems, and that is why they are taking a closer look at Kentucky’s drinking water systems.

State officials acknowledged even more systems could be at potential risk, where monitoring for toxic algae has not yet occurred. And Scott said there could be gaps in technology or expertise at some utilities, especially smaller systems with fewer resources.

“We need to make sure we are properly educating and informing our smaller systems of what they need to do,” Scott said. “We are asking what can and should be done to make sure we are looking at everything that needs to be looked at.”

If Kentucky water utilities don’t have procedures for analyzing their source water for the different types of toxic algae, state officials recommend developing some.

Scott said they want to make sure all systems understand what treatment methods work, and have an emergency response plan if their water becomes unsafe for drinking.

Rural water systems contacted by The Courier-Journal said their customers don’t need to worry.

“We are staying on top of it,” said Tom Dole, general manager of the Shelbyville Water and Sewer Commission, which draws water from Guist Creek Lake.

“We are not experiencing … anything like the conditions that we read (about) and saw in Toledo,” said Kevin Shaw, general manager of the Grayson County Water District, which draws from Rough River Lake. “You could look at the water and see the algae. That is not the case in our reservoir.”

Indiana’s Department of Environmental Management surveyed its 33 public water utilities that rely on lakes in the wake of Toledo’s crisis, said Barry Sneed, IDEM spokesman. Bloomington’s water system was concerned about algae, so new samples were taken but no toxins or algae were detected, he added.

“We plan to keep in contact with systems that may be susceptible to algal blooms and if problems arise, we will work with the system to ensure treatment is adjusted to any address possible algal toxins,” he said.

COURIER-JOURNAL

Map of Kentucky and Inidiana lakes with elevated toxic algae

Prevention

Besides ensuring drinking water utilities are prepared, experts say Kentucky needs to do more to prevent the blooms.

“We need to step up our game,” said Gail Brion, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Kentucky with an expertise in water-borne illnesses and water treatment.

She said the state needs to better curb the nitrogen and phosphorous that gets into waterways from sewage, animal waste, fertilizers and other sources.

“Once a bloom has happened, it is too late,” she said. “The toxins persist in the environment months after formation, so even if the algae leave, the toxins can remain.”

Scott said Kentucky regulators know they need better control of nutrient pollution and his department is working on a nutrient-management plan to do just that.

But environmentalists worry the state won’t adopt stringent enough pollution limits and that state environmental agency budgets will continue, further putting Kentucky communities at risk of a drinking water crises.

“We need limits on pollutants and inspectors on the ground,” said Judy Petersen, executive director of the Kentucky Waterways Alliance, which has joined other groups in suing the EPA over nutrient pollution in the Mississippi Basin, including Kentucky and Indiana. Otherwise, she said, Kentucky residents “are rolling the dice” on safe drinking water.

When it comes to cyanobacteria, it quickly gets complicated.

The toxin that wreaked havoc in northern Ohio — microcystin — can be produced by a variety of blue-green algae, not just the Microcystic found in Lake Erie. And other types of blue-green algae have different toxins that can cause health problems.

Toledo draws water from a shallow area of Lake Erie that became inundated by blue-green algae that produced microcystin, said Greg Boyer, chair of the chemistry department at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in New York.

The city’s water utility had no ability to switch to another intake, where there was less blue-green algae, said Boyer, who is also acting director for the Great Lakes Research Consortium, a research network.

The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency had warned Toledo about problems with its aging treatment system in June, writing to the city’s mayor of “the precarious condition” of the system and its “imminent vulnerability to failure.”

Boyer said utilities should monitor for the types of blue-green algae that can produce toxins. He said equipment can be bought for $5,000 to $25,000 that can provide a continuous flow of toxic algae data.

“Then, at what point do you worry about it? We deal, in most cases, where the blooms have to be fairly thick,” he said. “When you can see it.”

Further complicating matters, Scott said, is that the EPA has yet to establish a uniform testing method for the algae toxins, or safe drinking water standards. EPA is working on that, but “we believe they need to accelerate their decision making based on what we are seeing in Toledo and other places, including Kentucky,” Scott said.

COURIER-JOURNAL

Toxic algae effects and precautions

Taylorsville Lake in Spencer County, a popular summer destination for water recreation, has fallen victim to an invasive and toxic algae over the past year. (Photo: Marty Pearl/Special to The CJ)

Louisville preparations

The Louisville Water Co. has an algae response plan that involves close tracking of algae in the Ohio River when it may be present: April to November.

The company’s aquatic ecologist, Roger Tucker, checks water samples through a microscope to determine what types of algae may be in the water, and whether they might cause any problems.

So far, the only algae problems Louisville Water has experienced comes from those that can make water taste or smell bad, Tucker said. This year, he said, there has been hardly any algae in the company’s river water.

Rivers are also less likely to have algae blooms because their water doesn’t get stagnant, said the water company’s chief scientist, Rengao Song. Sediment that often turns the Ohio brown blocks sunlight, preventing algae from growing, he said.

The water company’s Crescent Hill Treatment Plant is well-equipped to remove algae and any algae-caused toxins or chemicals that cause taste and odor changes, with processes that include absorptive activated carbon, he said.

Louisville also gets 30 percent of its water from wells deep under the Ohio River, where sand and gravel naturally filter tiny contaminants, including algae. That water feeds the company’s B.E. Payne treatment plant.

The water company is now working with engineering consultants on preliminary engineering for riverbank filtration for its Crescent Hill plant. Such a system should have no risk from toxic algae, Song said.

“The Louisville Water Co. has never detected any algae cells in its riverbank filtration water,” Song said.

Reach reporter James Bruggers at (502) 582-4645 or on Twitter @jbruggers.

Kentucky water systems that draw from lakes with toxic algae advisories:

• Shelbyville Water and Sewer Commission (Guist Creek Lake)

• Springfield Water Works (Willisburg Lake)

• Glasgow Water Co. and Scottsville Water Department (Barren River Lake)

• Edmonson County Water District (Nolin River Lake)

• Columbia/Adair County Regional Water Commission and Campbellsville Municipal Water (Green River Lake)

• Grayson County Water District and Litchfield Water Works (Rough River Lake)

• Mount Sterling Water Works (Greenbriar Creek Reservoir)

Source: Kentucky Division of Water

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Latest Post, Water

More than 200,000 rural Kentuckians have no access to public water systems


By Greg Kocher

gkocher1@herald-leader.comAugust 4, 2014

FRENCHBURG — Debbie and Mike Weiner can see Cave Run Lake from their house, but they depend on rainfall for their water.

Rainwater runs off the roof to their gutters and through pipes to collect in an underground, 1,000-gallon cistern in the backyard. The water is then pumped into the house for bathing, washing clothes and the toilet. They use only bottled water for drinking and cooking.

“Yesterday it rained a lot,” Debbie Weiner said in a recent interview. “That’s when I washed my bedclothes and a lot of the things in the house that needed to be washed.”

The Weiners are among a shrinking number in Kentucky — an estimated 93,600 households, or more than 234,000 people — who are not connected to a public water system. Their house on Leatherwood Road in rural Menifee County is about eight miles from the nearest water line and 20 miles north of Frenchburg, the county seat.

The Weiners desperately want to be connected to a public water system. At least one test showed harmful E. coli bacteria in their tap water, despite reverse-osmosis filtration, ultraviolet light and other purification measures. The couple haven’t used the cistern water for cooking or drinking since 2012, when Debbie, 60, a former adult-education instructor at Morehead State University, was diagnosed with an incurable bladder disease. She keeps a log of the politicians and others she has contacted in her quest for “city water.”

The Weiners highlight one of the gaps in water service in the United States.

The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that 14 percent of the population relies on wells, cisterns or some unsustainable source for water, said Stephen Gasteyer, an associate professor of sociology at Michigan State University. Gasteyer has studied community and natural resources management.

“It’s an embarrassment for us as a nation to have people in the 21st century who don’t have access to water and sanitation,” Gasteyer said. “But from the perspective of a small water system, they are already strapped. We had major infrastructure investments in this country in the 1930s … through the 1970s. Well, a lot of that infrastructure is now wearing out. You have water systems of all sizes in this country that are struggling to stay in the black. So taking on the extra load of people who are a ways out of town seems like a real burden.”

In Kentucky, about 5 percent of residents are not connected to a community water system, according to figures provided by Andy Lange, assistant director of the Kentucky Rural Water Association. Only California has a lower percentage of residents who are not served by community water systems.

(By contrast, almost a quarter of Kentucky’s population — 23 percent — has no access to high-speed Internet. Kentucky ranks 46th in broadband availability.)

Many water lines were extended into unserved rural areas during the 2000s, when Kentucky had money from the national tobacco settlement. That money is gone, although there is a state revolving fund and other federal programs to extend water lines.

Trouble is, the cost of running water lines to remote spots often isn’t cost-effective, said John Horne, a Nicholasville engineer whose firm has designed extensions in Jessamine County.

“To construct a distribution main, depending on the terrain and how much rock there is, it can run as much as $50,000 to $75,000 per mile,” Horne said. The price can easily double in rough terrain common in Eastern Kentucky, including Menifee County.

Community development block grants and other programs are available, but potential projects must qualify, Horne said.

“The government looks at feasibility. If it’s not feasible, … they don’t do it,” he said.

Even if lines were extended to isolated pockets, low usage from a small number of customers poses other problems, Horne said.

“Especially on long, dead-end lines, if they can’t use up all the water in the pipe in, say, two days, then it gets stale and then you get problems with odor and taste,” Horne said. “Then you have to flush all that out and waste it.”

Debbie Weiner has an answer ready when asked why taxpayer dollars should be used to pay for water lines to a remote spot where she and her husband choose to live.

“I think those tax dollars should pay for an American citizen to live anywhere they choose if I can open the paper and see that millions of dollars go to study garbage dumps that are closed,” Weiner said. She was referring to environmental risk assessments performed on closed landfills.

She also said that millions of dollars in state incentives will help Alltech put a new bourbon distillery and aquaculture and poultry farms in Pikeville. The state will provide as much as $5.73 million for an access road wide enough to accommodate tractor-trailers to a new industrial park, and $8 million for a bridge to connect an access road with U.S. 23. The incentives will bring new jobs.

Weiner doesn’t begrudge anyone jobs, but she said safe drinking water should be a high priority.

“Then let’s build a better Rupp Arena,” she said, referring to the now-stalled project that would have leveraged public and private dollars for a new Lexington home for the University of Kentucky men’s basketball team.

Frenchburg Mayor Edward Bryant said Leatherwood Road is one of only two rural roads in Menifee County that are without water. To extend water to the end of that road deep within Daniel Boone National Forest could cost more than $1 million, Bryant said.

“They’re in a remote area. There’s only, roughly, 24 or 25 homes, and out of that there are 12 or 15 people that live there full-time,” Bryant said. “We can’t put a burden on the current water customers to extend that. It’s a tough situation.”

Nevertheless, he said, the Gateway Regional Water Management Council has put the Leatherwood area on a list of projects.

“For Frenchburg to get over there, we’re going to have to cross that (Cave Run) lake some way,” Bryant said. “That means a pump station and a water tower, then you’ve got a problem of meeting the state regulations, keeping the water fresh for such a few. … It’s just not feasible right now unless somebody comes along with a barrel of money.”

In the meantime, because rainfall is unpredictable, the Weiners supplement their water supply. When rain is scarce and the cistern runs low, Mike Weiner, 65, a retired car salesman, drives about 12 miles to buy water from a bulk station. For $2, he can put 300 gallons in a tank that sits on the bed of his pickup. Then he hauls the sloshing load home to empty into the cistern.

The Weiners moved to Menifee County from Nashville so Debbie could be closer to her mother, who lives in Mount Sterling. Her mother previously owned property in the Leatherwood Road neighborhood where the Weiners eventually bought a lot and built their house. The couple knew the area had no public water when they moved there in 1998, but they thought it would be only a matter of time before they could hook onto “city water.”

Debbie Weiner said she sometimes goes to the Facebook page for Water.org, the organization co-founded by actor Matt Damon to provide safe drinking water and toilets to Ethiopia, Haiti and India and other foreign countries.

She posted a comment to the page July 16 that read, “Wish I had city water here in the United States, in Frenchburg, Kentucky.”

She hopes a wealthy celebrity will see her comment and take action to donate money to bring water to the end of Leatherwood Road.

Greg Kocher: (859) 231-3305. Twitter: @HLpublicsafety.

Read more here: http://www.kentucky.com/2014/08/04/3365284/public-water-systems-still-dont.html#storylink=cpy