Water: Leak Detection, Safety, Problems and Conservation

7 Reasons We’re Facing a Global Water Crisis

Droughts in Somalia. Water rationing in Rome. Flooding in Jakarta and Harvey-battered Houston. It doesn’t take a hydrologist to realize that there is a growing global water crisis. Each August, water experts, industry innovators, and researchers gather in Stockholm for World Water Week to tackle the planet’s most pressing water issues.

What are they up against this year? Here’s a quick rundown on the growing global water crisis.

1) We’re Changing the Climate, Making Dry Areas Drier and Precipitation More Variable and Extreme.

Climate change is warming the planet, making the world’s hottest geographies even more scorching. At the same time, clouds are moving away from the equator toward the poles, due to a climate-change driven phenomenon called Hadley Cell expansion. This deprives equatorial regions like sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and Central America of life-giving rainwater.

Paradoxically, climate change is also increasing precipitation in other areas, and people who live near rivers and streams have the most to lose. Currently, at least 21 million people worldwide are at risk of river flooding each year. That number could increase to 54 million by 2030. All countries with the greatest exposure to river floods are least developed or developing countries – which makes them even more vulnerable to climate change and natural disasters. This summer, extreme flooding submerged over a third of Bangladesh, claiming over 115 lives and affecting 5.7 million citizens.

2) More People + More Money = More Water Demand.

It’s a simple equation: As populations increase and incomes grow, so does water demand. The world’s population, now at 7.5 billion, is projected to add 2.3 billion more people by 2050. How can the planet satisfy their thirst? Growing incomes also exacerbate the water problem, because of the water-intensive products—like meatand energy from fossil fuels—that richer populations demand.

3) Groundwater Is Being Depleted.

About 30 percent of Earth’s fresh water lies deep underground in aquifers. And it’s extracted daily for farming, drinking and industrial processes – often at dangerously unsustainable rates. Nowhere is this more evident than India, which guzzles more groundwater than any other country. 54 percent of India’s groundwater wells are decreasing, meaning that water is used faster than it’s replenished. Unless patterns shift, in 20 years, 60 percent of India’s aquifers will be in critical condition.

Unlike an incoming hurricane or a drained lake, the naked eye cannot see when groundwater reserves in aquifers are declining. Global water supplies are susceptible to this hidden and growing threat.

4) Water Infrastructure Is in a Dismal State of Disrepair.

Having enough water to go around is only the beginning. That water also needs to be transported, treated, and discharged. Around the world, water infrastructure―treatment plants, pipes, and sewer systems―is in a state of disrepair. In the United States, 6 billion gallons of treated water are lost per dayfrom leaky pipes alone. Built infrastructure is notoriously expensive to install and repair, meaning that many localities ignore growing infrastructure issues until disaster strikes, as it did in California earlier this year.

5) And Natural Infrastructure Is Being Ignored.

<p>Heavy machinery removing trees in Ecuador. Flickr/CIFOR</p> Heavy machinery removing trees in Ecuador. Flickr/CIFOR

Healthy ecosystems are ” natural infrastructure” and vital to clean, plentiful water. They filter pollutants, buffer against floods and storms, and regulate water supply. Plants and trees are essential for replenishing groundwater; without them, rainfall will slide across dry land, instead of seeping into the soil. Loss of vegetation from deforestation, overgrazing and urbanization is limiting our natural infrastructure and the benefits that it provides. Forested watersheds around the world are under threat: watersheds have lost up to 22 percent of their forests in the past 14 years.

6) Water Is Wasted.

Although it’s true that water is a renewable resource, it’s often wasted. Inefficient practices like flood irrigation and water-intensive wet cooling at thermal power plants use more water than necessary. What’s more, as we pollute our available water at an alarming rate, we also fail to treat it. About 80 percent of the world’s wastewater is discharged back into nature without further treatment or reuse. In many countries, it’s cheaper to receive clean drinking water than to treat and dispose of wastewater, which encourages water waste. This brings us to the next issue:

7) The Price Is Wrong.

Globally, water is seriously undervalued. Its price does not reflect the true, total cost of service, from its transport via infrastructure to its treatment and disposal. This has led to misallocation of water, and a lack of investments in infrastructure and new water technologies that use water more efficiently. After all, why would a company or government invest in expensive water-saving technologies, when water is cheaper than the technology in question? When the price of receiving clean water is closer to its actual service cost, efficient water use will be incentivized. And on the flip side, the poor often end up paying disproportionately high prices for water, stunting development.

It’s Not Too Late

Amidst these seven deadly water sins, there is good news: governments, businesses, universities and citizens around the world are waking up to water challenges, and beginning to take action. Each year brings more solutions – like using wastewater for energy, using restoration to bring water back to dry topographies, and monitoring groundwater levels more closely. However, even the best solutions will not implement themselves. Along with fresh water, political will and public pressure are critical resources in ensuring a sustainable future for all.

This Simple Box Serves Up Running Water And Clean Electricity In Remote Locations

Off Grid Box, an Italian startup, was founded to bring clean water and renewable energy to the millions of the people in the world who still live without. The box itself is a simple container, measuring six by six by six feet. With solar panels on top and water treatment inside, it can help remote communities with both off-grid energy and easily accessible filtered water. Founder and CEO Emiliano Cecchini has sold a few of the units, but he worries he’s not yet found the formula to take his invention to scale.

After three years on the market, Off Grid Box is a trusted enough product that 28 individuals and organizations have bought the container at $15,000 and up. Half the units went to nonprofits in Madagascar, Nigeria, Rwanda, Colombia, and elsewhere; another half to “cool guys that had a camper in the middle of nowhere, who want to be green, cool, resilient,” says Cecchini. One washed away to the Pacific Ocean: a unit that sat on the shore of Bantayan Island, in the Philippines, until it was caught by a 2014 typhoon.

“It’s not easy to find the right financing strategy, mentors, and accelerator programs.” [Photo: Off Grid Box]

But Cecchini, who is Italian, doesn’t feel the startup is yet at a point where it can ramp up sales and production, and get itself on stable financial footing. Selling one unit at a time isn’t particularly profitable (including after-sales) and it doesn’t get enough Off Grid Boxes out there in the world. “We’re looking for the next system to scale,” he says. “The idea came three years ago and, yeah, we’re kind of struggling to make it bigger. Back in Italy, it’s not easy to find the right financing strategy, mentors, and accelerator programs.”

Off Grid Box was recently selected for the 2017 cohort of the Mass Challenge accelerator program, in Boston, where Cecchini will hone a new business model. Instead of selling units to cool guys and NGOs, it now plans to install them where they are needed and then charge end-customers for access. For a few cents a day, people will able access clean water and clean power at a station continually attended by local people. “The new model is pay-as-you-go micro-payments, local contractors, and local empowerment,” Cecchini says.

The new business model is getting a thorough test in Rwanda, where the startup plans to install units in 18 villages. The government has commissioned 14 contractors to work on rural electrification, and Off Grid Box is partnered with three of them so far, Cecchini says. By 2020, it hopes to be serving 420,000 end-customers.
“The new model is pay-as-you-go micro-payments, local contractors, and local empowerment.” [Image: Off Grid Box]

Inside the container is a five-stage micro-filtration tank that takes in dirty water and produces an odorless, transparent, bacteria-free drinkable water, Cecchini says. A family of four pays 12 U.S. cents (100 Rwandan Francs) to fill up with enough water for the day. At the same time, each unit has solar panels sufficient to allow 300 families battery packs subsidized by the startup. These hold enough power to run three LED lights for four hours and to charge two mobile phones.While in the U.S., Cecchini is signing up impact investors and donors, who can monitor their projects remotely and online. Each installation costs about $15,000–which comes out of a joint financing pool. He thinks the units can generate 10% profitability and that there will be further revenue opportunities to grow the business in the future. Ideally, the boxes will become community hubs, with Wi-Fi and associated commercial activity. “Once we add connectivity and we have people attending all day, we have a strong financial business model. The Wi-Fi opens up services that could be backed by venture capital.”

Here Are The Most Common Ways You’re Wasting Water That Cost You More Than You Think

24 Nov 2018

Keeping an eye on your water usage is a good way to save money and help the planet at the same time. Plenty of us have bad habits that could be costing us hundreds of dollars in water bills over the long run.

Here are a few ways that you could be wasting water without realising it, and what you can do about it.

You wait for the tap water to get cold during the summer.


When you want a cool glass of water, do you run the faucet for a few moments until the stream is cold? Unless you live somewhere where the tap water is always icy, this little habit wastes a surprising amount of water.

According to the Alliance for Water Efficiency, a new kitchen faucet flows at a rate of half a gallon per minute, on average. Faucets installed during the 1990s, however, may flow at closer to 2.2 gallons per minute. That means you could be pouring up to a gallon of water down the drain for every 30 seconds you leave the tap running.

A better way to satisfy your cold water cravings is to fill up a large container of drinking water from the tap and keep it in the fridge.

You have an old toilet.

BIWater2(Nadine Hutton/Getty)

According to Energy Star, a government-backed energy-efficiency program, the one appliance that uses the most water in a home is the toilet.

Older toilets installed before 1992 can use between 3 and 7 gallons of water per flush. In comparison, federal plumbing standards now specify that new toilets can only use up to 1.5 gallonsper flush.

You plant the wrong kind of flowers or shrubs for your climate.


If you live in a dry and arid region, planting greenery that requires large quantities of water can be a major waste of money and natural resources.

According to the gardening website GrowVeg, using grey water – i.e. water that has already been used in your washing machine, showers, and sinks – is one way to cut down your water waste. 

You hose down your driveway or patio instead of sweeping it.


You probably don’t think twice about giving your dusty driveway or porch a quick rinse with a hose, but it’s actually a wasteful way to keep your property tidy.

Considering that a garden hose can emit between 6 and 24 gallons of water per minute, you’re much better off sweeping your outdoor living areas with a broom.

You water your plants in the afternoon.

BIWater5(Christopher Craig/Flickr)

According to the Royal Horticultural Society, the best time to water most outdoor plants is in the early morning or evening.This is because watering in the afternoon can lead to water loss through evaporation, since it’s generally the warmest part of the day. That’s not good for your plants or your budget.

You haven’t installed a shower aerator.


If you’ve been looking for an excuse to indulge in a new shower head, here’s one – when you install a high-efficiency faucet aerator or showerhead, you can save almost 3,500 gallons of water per year. That adds up to major savings and is better for the environment.

Read more:The best shower heads you can buy

You put off repairing leaky faucets.


Fixing a leaky faucet is no one’s idea of an exciting afternoon, but letting leaky fixtures drip can cost you serious cash and waste water. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, a leaking faucet can waste up to 3,000 gallons per year.

In fact, 10% of US homes have leaks that waste 90 gallons or more per day, the EPA estimates. To put that in perspective, that’s like taking an extra five showers per day.

You run your dishwasher when it’s not full.

BIWater8(Joanna Bourne/Flickr)

Everyone has lazy days when washing a single cup seems like a Herculean task. But running your dishwasher when it’s not full is a poor use of electricity and water, according to Energy Star.

Wait to run your dishwasher until you have enough dirty dishes to pack it full, or simply get into the habit of washing some items by hand.

You throw just a few items of clothing in the washing machine.


Even highly efficient modern washing machines typically use 8 to 12 gallons of water per cycle, according to laundry machine maker Samsung. Although it’s not good practice to stuff your washing machine to the max, running this water-hungry appliance with just a few items of clothing inside is a serious waste of resources and money.

You leave the faucet running while you brush your teeth.

BIWater10(Cody Long/Flickr)

This is a classic water-wasting mistake. According to the Alliance for Water Efficiency, leaving the tap running while you brush your teeth has the potential to waste gallons of water.

According to the US Green Building Council, the maximum flow rate for a private lavatory faucet is 1.5 gallons per minute. So if you’re brushing your teeth for two minutes, you might waste 3 gallons of water.

You own a pool but don’t cover it.

If you have your own pool, use a pool cover when you’re not swimming. According to the Department of Energy, using a cover can significantly reduce evaporation from both indoor and outdoor pools.

It only takes 1 Btu (British thermal unit) to raise 1 pound of water 1 degree, but each pound of 80-degree-Fahrenheit water that evaporates takes a whopping 1,048 Btu of heat out of the pool. Long story short, don’t let your heated pool water evaporate.

As West Grows, Water Use Declines Thanks To Better Toilets

by Luke Runyon

Throughout the western U.S., water conservation is in the toilet.

And that’s a good thing.

Since the 1990s, a strange phenomenon has played out in arid western urban areas. Populations are booming while overall water use is staying the same or going down.The trend is clear in Denver, Albuquerque, N.M., Las Vegas, San Diego and Phoenix: Cities are growing and using less water in the process.

It’s impossible to give credit to one single solution, but one could make a strong case that the MVP award for water conservation efforts should go to the modern toilet.

The toilet is the single largest user of water in the home. It uses more than the washing machine, the dishwasher, the shower or the kitchen faucet. About a quarter of all water that enters a home will flow through the toilet according to a 2016 study. Each day the average toilet will use about 33 gallons of water.

That might sound like a lot, but it’s a big improvement. In 1999 the average toilet guzzled more than 45 gallons of water daily.

The story of how the toilet became the unsung hero of water conservation includes an act of Congress, some elbow grease and logs of miso paste.

Out with the old

Theresa MacFarland lives in a historic two-story house in Longmont, Colo., with her husband and two kids. Built in 1928, their home has all the vintage touches: hardwood floors, big windows, wood detailing and one really old toilet.

A little stamp on the bowl says it was built in the 1950s. MacFarland points it out to her 4-year-old daughter Althea.

“That toilet has been there longer than daddy and I have been alive,” she says. “Probably longer than grandma and grandpa have been alive.”

Resource Central employees Max Hartmann (left) and Neka Sunlin haul the MacFarland family’s vintage toilet out of their Longmont, Colorado home.
Luke Runyon/Freelance

As aging toilets are wont to do, it started acting up. So MacFarland contacted Resource Central, a Boulder-based conservation group and asked for help installing a new, more water-friendly model. Neka Sunlin showed up with the latest in toilet technology. Sunlin oversees the group’s toilet replacement program, Flush for the Future.

“We guesstimate this one is using about five gallons a flush,” she says about the old toilet. “The new one uses less than one.”

In Sunlin’s years with Resource Central, this is the oldest toilet she’s condemned to the local recycling center. By swapping it out, the McFarland family could see a dip in their water bill, she says.

A fast-growing alternative to high-priced Boulder, the city of Longmont has an interest in what happens in the MacFarland family bathroom. Water saved from their home is water that can be put to use somewhere else.

That’s why the city, along with a handful of other water providers on Colorado’s Front Range, subsidizes the cost of high-efficiency toilets. MacFarland is paying $175 for the new toilet, the cost of installation and removal of the old one. Her new model retails for $160.

Sunlin says it’s an easy switch with a big pay off. With other conservation programs you first have to convince people to use less water.

“But a toilet is a toilet,” she says, “and it’s no behavior change whatsoever. You literally just save water with every flush.”

In the last three years Resource Central has upgraded 2,000 toilets, which calculates out to 500 million gallons of water saved when looking at the average lifespan of the toilet of 30 years.

“Most people don’t realize that if their toilet is more than 10 or 15 years old, replacing their toilet or upgrading their toilet is one of the most impactful ways they can save water,” says Neal Lurie, president of Resource Central.

The group receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation, which also provides support for public radio member station KUNC’s water reporting.

“It can save between 200 and 300,000 gallons of water over the life of that toilet,” he says.

In with the new

The road to high-efficiency toilets began back in 1992. The concern was less about water scarcity in the West and more about overwhelmed sewage systems on the East Coast.

Congress was feeling pressure to pass national standards for water use and came up with the Energy Policy Act, a law that spawned a generation of low-flow fixtures.

For the plumbing industry, it was a huge deal.

“Absolutely, it was an extremely watershed moment, no pun intended,” says Pete DeMarco with the International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials.

The law mandated that toilets flush using 1.6 gallons of water or less. Throughout the 1990s, low-flush toilets flooded the market. But the results were not always satisfactory.

DeMarco says users hated the new models. They complained that their “new and improved” toilets performed worse than the old ones, unable to finish the job in a single flush.

“There were some poor-performing products back in the mid-90s. I think the regulation caught some manufacturers off guard,” he says.

In many cases, DeMarco says, manufacturers had simply reduced the amount of water a toilet used without making significant changes to the inner workings. A lower flow just couldn’t cut it.

Frustrated customers sent toilet-makers back to the drawing board and manufacturers came up with a test to demonstrate flushing effectiveness for new toilets. The test came from a company called Maximum Performance. Using logs of miso paste in the toilets, the test allowed manufacturers to demonstrate that their new low-flow toilets could actually evacuate the bowl with one flush.

Indoor water use drops

DeMarco says toilets can’t take all the credit, but this one innovation is a big reason why cities have been able to grow and still keep their water use in check. Indoor use dropped 22 percent nationwide between 1999 and 2016, much of that due to swapping out old fixtures.

In recent years some states with water scarcity problems — like Colorado and California — have passed even tighter regulations on how much water toilets can use.

“So you basically have these high-efficiency toilets now as a matter of course. You cannot go out in a store in Colorado, in California, and buy an old toilet,” says Drew Beckwith, a water policy expert who works in suburban Denver.

Beckwith says conservationists have been a victim of their own success. With national standards in place and active replacement programs throughout the country, there’s not much more they can do to limit water use inside homes. All new residential developments are putting in high-efficiency toilets because there’s no other option on the market. And when old models need replacing in existing homes, the only available option is a high-efficiency toilet.

“We’ve sort of done our business with respect to toilets,” Beckwith says. “And it’s time to, you know, maybe get off the pot and move on to outdoor water use which is more the focus of urban water efficiency today.”

Fixing the flush

Back at the MacFarland home, the toilet transition is complete. The nearly 70-year-old toilet is loaded on a van bound for the recycling plant. The brand new high-efficiency toilet is hooked up and the water is flowing.

“This is going to be a huge improvement,” Theresa MacFarland says. “And it feels like with very little effort, which I’m very excited about.”

Even though some conservationists say much of the indoor water use fruit has been plucked, a 2017 Alliance for Water Efficiency study found that more than 13 million non-efficient toilets — those that flush more than 1.6 gallons — remain in five states, including those with the toughest restrictions: California and Colorado.

A nationwide push to rid the country of old toilets could have a significant effect.

If all toilets were high-efficiency, indoor water use could drop an additional 35 percent to below 40 gallons per person per day, the study projected.

MacFarland says she loves the character and charm of her historic home, and she’s focused on making it environmentally-friendly. But it takes time, energy and money to make it happen.

“We’ve been slowly trying to figure out ways to have just less water usage in this home,” she says. “Knowing in Colorado it’s such a precious resource, and we want our kids to grow up here and also recognize what comes with living in Colorado and trying to do our part.”

The Resource Central technicians ask for a practice flush to make sure it’s working right before they depart. The honor of the first flush goes to McFarland’s daughter Althea.

“Check it out. There’s this new button,” MacFarland says as she motions to her daughter. “Kind of the same as the other one, except inside the tank this is so different than the other one. This one just uses a little bit of water.”

“And it’s cleaner,” Althea says.

“And it’s cleaner, way cleaner,” MacFarland says.

This story is part of a collaborative series from the Colorado River Reporting Projectat KUNC and Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a new multimedia collaboration between public radio and TV stations in the west.

Intellecy Featured on Forbes: “Plumbing Sensor That Listens For Leaks Can Pre-empt Emergencies, Conserve Water”

By Heather L. Whitley, Senior Writer and Digital Producer, Forbes

People waste it and fight over it, while globally more than 840 million still struggle to even get access to it.

BluView detects when these signals fluctuate and alerts homeowners of potential leaks via their smartphones.

BluView detects when these signals fluctuate and alerts homeowners of potential leaks via their smartphones. ISTOCK

In the United States, 40 of the country’s 50 states are expected to suffer water shortages by 2023. Meanwhile, household leaks are wasting 900 billion gallons of water annually nationwide.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that entrepreneurs like Emilio Vargas II, president and CEO of San Diego-based Intellecy, Inc., are developing new smart home technologies to monitor, manage and reduce water use.

“Our thought was to come out with a product that was environmentally friendly and environmentally conscious,” Vargas explained. “It would help people change their behaviors by providing them with real-time data on how much water they are using, wasting or consuming.”

Getting A Clear View

By the end of 2016, Intellecy had developed its first prototype of BluView, a sensor that fits onto a water pipe. The system’s water manager continuously measures and monitors water flow based on the sounds and energy signals that are created when water moves through pipes and faucets.

BluView detects when these signals fluctuate and alerts homeowners of potential leaks via their smartphones. The sensor is like having a video camera all around the home to guard against intruders.

The BlueView app that’s being developed by Intellecy would allow users to compare water use to conservation goals.

The BluView app that’s being developed by Intellecy would allow users to compare water use to conservation goals. BLUVIEW

“We’re watching every single corner of your plumbing for a leak,” Vargas said.

Confident in the product’s abilities, Intellecy launched a campaign for BluView on Kickstarter. Although the company fell short of meeting its financial goals, Vargas said the online platform provided some useful insight.

“We learned so much from all the people who were asking us questions about our product,” Vargas recalled. “The overwhelming interest was, ‘You guys can find a leak, and now you’re going to tell me I have a leak. Why can’t you just add something to turn off the water?’”

Based on that feedback, the Intellecy team went back to the drawing board and added a motorized water valve to the BluView system, which allows customers to remotely turn off their water from their smartphones if a leak is detected. Early testing has proved successful, and Vargas said the updated product is expected to go to market early next year.

In addition to protecting against leaks, BluView addresses the larger issue of water management and conservation, Vargas noted. The real-time data provided to homeowners quantifies water-use patterns, so they can adjust their habits and reduce consumption.

“I think that’s a much bigger benefit for our country and globally,” he said.

Tech As Part Of The Team

Staying on task and managing the development of a new product would not be possible without technology, according to Vargas. From basic communication and collaboration tools to cloud-based, computer-aided design platforms, these programs allow Intellecy to run efficiently and effectively, he said.

“We have one person working about 80 miles away out of his home office,” Vargas said. “And when he designs stuff, we can see it almost instantaneously on our end as if we were looking over his shoulder.”

To track the development cycle of BluView, Intellecy uses product roadmap software that Vargas said is the perfect way to capture and prioritize customer requests and comments.

“It really does save time. It improves communication. It creates a record and really keeps us organized,” he said. “And I think it really has allowed us to do a lot of stuff with fewer people. So, it actually becomes part of our team.”

Intellecy has been accepted to three incubators that focus on water conservation, blue technology and smart home solutions. Vargas said the exposure has garnered interest in Intellecy’s technology from city governments and water utilities as well as businesses in which water plays an integral role, such as breweries and bottling companies.

But no matter where the company’s path may lead, Vargas said he will continue to embrace new software and technologies that will boost the efficiency of his small business.

Originally published August 17, 2018 on Forbes. View original article>>

How to test your tap water for lead

Nearly half of Americans suspect that their water might be unsafe. 

This article helps you understand the cause of lead in water and shares some lead test kits to identify the presence of lead.

By Kendra Pierre-Louis

People don’t trust the water that comes out of their tap, and not just in places without adequate sanitation. A 2016 survey by The Meyocks Group, an Iowa-based marketing firm, found that 43 percent of Americans either believe their tap water is unsafe to drink or are unsure of its safety.

In the wake of the Flint water crisis, that fear isn’t wholly unexpected. The city’s troubles began when the state switched the water supply from Lake Huron to the notoriously polluted Flint River, failing to properly treat it to kill pathogens and prevent lead pipe erosion. But the mistrust came when—as residents complained of foul water, disease, and even death—the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality continued to claim that the water was safe.

Luckily, homeowners who suspect that their drinking water might be contaminated have more options than ever before. In New York, for instance, folks can order a free at-home testing kit. And most hardware stores offer a similar system for purchase. We pitted those up against a new product called Tap Score to see just how accurate—and easy to understand—the results are.

How good is New York City tap water?

Most NYC locals claim to guzzle some of the best water in the country. To hear them talk, you would think the city’s soft water begins in a mythical land known as “upstate,” where it’s filtered through pristine forests and a unicorn’s mane before it descends onto the city, via a canal of pure angelic light, to create the best bagels, pizza, and drinking water known to human kind.

An Environmental Working Group (EWG) analysis of 100 municipal tap water systems found that New York City had six contaminants at levels above the health guidelines established by either a federal or state authority (though lead wasn’t among them). EWG, it should be noted, has been criticized in the past for overstating chemical risks, especially those related to food and drink. That said, EGW’s overall assessment of New York City’s tap water as compared to the rest of the country is… well, it falls short of the fantasy set by locals, but the tap is just fine.

How good is our water, really?

Popular Science’s commerce editor Billy Cadden lives in an older part of the city than I do, where buildings are more likely to use lead somewhere in their plumbing system—it’s been phased out ever since scientists confirmed how dangerous the metal can be.

“Even though the town might say, look, there’s no in the water, they then put it into a distribution system,” says Mark Burns, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Michigan. “That distribution system goes through many different pipes, across many different joints—that are connected by many different materials—and then it gets to your glass.”

So Billy opened his home (and his taps) to three tests.

two bottles on a table

These are the collection bottles that New York City sends out. We’ve blurred out the potentially identifying information.

Kendra Pierre-Louis

Our results

Testing for lead in New York City

Using the free service from New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection proved pretty straightforward. First, you abstain from water use in your home for 12 hours—there’s generally more lead in the liquid if your pipes have settled a bit. You then fill collection bottle one (the yellow bottle) and let the pipes flush for one to two minutes before filling bottle two (the red one). You bundle the whole thing up in a package and mail it back. We got the results about three weeks later.

The city found that the first draw had 1 microgram of lead per liter, well below the federal action level of 15 micrograms per liter. The second draw, after Billy had let the water flow for a bit, had no detectable lead at all. The test was reassuring, though the results were in a form letter that wasn’t exactly user-friendly.

But in the wake of Flint, many people are understandably distrusting of reassurances from government agencies. How could we know the test was accurate? Then there’s the fact that the test only looks for lead; it may be a hot-button contaminant right now, but there are certainly other things that could make your tap water unsafe.

Home Testing

Our second round used a “First Alert” home test (sold online and in many hardware stores) that promised to detect not only lead, but also bacteria, pesticides, nitrates, chlorine, hardness, and pH. If you have lead pipes, acidic water can cause the lead to leach out. That’s essentially what happened in Flint. Because water managers failed to add an anti-corrosive agent (as a cost-cutting measure), water from the Flint River ate away at the pipes and pulled lead into the drinking supply.

Contaminants are broken down into individual tests, each requiring a separate vial of water or testing strip. Like the test done by the city, we were in the clear for lead. We also came up either negative or within normal range for everything else, which certainly suggests that Billy can continue to happily drink his tap water.

This test certainly gets points for immediate gratification. With the exception of the bacterial test, which took 48 hours, we didn’t have to wait more than 10 minutes for any result. For less than $15 on Amazon, it’s a good option for someone looking for quick reassurance.

Tap Score

Of the three tests that we took, Tap Score was the easiest. It also had the most comprehensive results, including measurements for things like copper (which only makes you sick at very high levels, but can kill your goldfish at a much lower threshold), hexachlorobutadiene (which can affect the kidneys), and isopropylbenzene (which may increase risk of cancer). But Billy did not dig the delayed gratification.

With Tap Score, you have to fill two vials—much smaller than the ones the city had sent—mail them off, and wait for them to get back to you. Still, it was fun getting a cheerful email telling us that our water ranked in the 99th percentile for tap water quality.

“You’re living in the best possible scenario,” says John Pujol, who created Tap Score with his company Simplewater. “You have this fantastic water system in New York City, a big, rich, dense population where people are actively on top of problems. That’s a luxury. But for 20 to 30 percent of Americans that live in communities that are much smaller, either these issues never emerge—so the water system doesn’t feel the heat to solve problems—or it does emerge, and you have a water system that knows it has a problem but doesn’t have the funding to fix it.”

The goal of Tap Score isn’t really to test water like New York’s, but for small municipal systems and the 40 to 50 million people who are on wells, and maybe wouldn’t ordinarily get their water tested—or know what to do with the results.

“It’s really the interpretation of the water that other tests lack that sets Tap Score apart,” says Pujol. “If it’s a municipality, they’re only going to test your water for certain controlled substances that are managed by the EPA, but those are by no means the full set of parameters anymore. It’s been around 10 years since the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has introduced any new standards.”

In the interim, companies have introduced thousands of new potential contaminants.

“So, what we seek to do is not just test for those regulated contaminants, but go a little bit further and test for pharmaceutical compounds,” says Pujol. “We test for unregulated but potentially dangerous compounds that are on the contaminate candidate list. These are contaminants which the EPA is looking at, but it’s going to take them 10 years to come to any decision.” 

If your test turns up positive, Tap Score offers you potential solutions. But it also costs at least a hundred bucks, and prices are higher for the most comprehensive tests.

Should I test my water for lead?

If you’re at all uncertain of your water’s safety—and you live in New York State—nabbing a free testing kit is a no-brainer. If your state doesn’t offer testing for free, consider investing in a $15 kit to ease your mind. The redundancies between our three results certainly suggest that all of the options we tried are fairly accurate, so if spending 100-200 dollars on a testing kit sounds like overkill, it probably is. But if you live in a town where municipal testing is infrequent—or if you get your water from a well you’ve never tested—it might be worth upgrading to a test that’s as comprehensive and user-friendly as Tap Score.

Checklist for home plumbing maintenance

In response to the many requests, we have put together this plumbing maintenance checklist to help you identify and avoid potential problems with your home’s plumbing.  We invite you to download this checklist for your use.

To download, click here > Plumbing Preventative Maintenance Checklist

Check our podcast for the 3 part series on home maintenance.

Plumbing maintenance – scheduled:

  • Where is the water shut off valve located?

› Exercise main water valve at least once per year more often if you have hard water (high mineral content.

» To check your water quality, check with your water company.

  • Water heater

› Flush your water heater at least once a year.

» Turn the heating element off. Turn the water inlet valve to the off position. Connect a hose to the spigot at the bottom of the water heater. Open the valve for the spigot and let all the water drain out. When completely drained, close the spigot valve. Turn the water inlet valve to on position for 2 or 3 minutes. Then while water is on at the inlet, open the spigot. This will flush any remaining sand and silt from the bottom of the tank. Let drain until you see clear water. When clear water is seen, close spigot valve, remove hose and turn heating element on.

› Listen to your water heater

» Listen to the water heater for a gurgling sound while the heating element is on. This sound usually means that you have a thick layer of sediment at the bottom of the tank. This sediment will cause the heating element to work longer to heat the water. This extra heating time overheats and weakens the metal of the tank which will result in rust and eventually a leak.

  • Washing machine, dishwasher, and refrigerator hoses

› Inspect annually; look and feel for small bulges forming along the entire length of the hose. If a small bulge is visible or felt, replace immediately.

› It is recommended that these hoses (both rubber and metal reinforced) be replaced every 5 years.

Plumbing Maintenance – Prevention Tips:

— Heat your water no higher than about 120F / 50C.

» Setting your water temperature too high causes the heating element to heat the tank longer. The longer heating time overheats the metal of the tank and weakens the metal of the tank which will result in rust and eventually a leak.

— Add pipe insulation to the plumbing in cold parts of your house—such as garages, basements, and crawl spaces—to avoid frozen pipes (and to shorten the wait for hot water).

— Avoid using acids and corrosive chemicals to clear drain. They can damage your drains and cause expensive leaks.

— Prevent frozen pipes

» Heat your entire home — not just certain rooms. Allowing warm air to circulate through your home keeps your pipes warm.

» Allow the water to trickle from each faucet in your home when temperatures are extremely cold.

» Insulate both cold and hot water pipes.

— Never use an exposed pipe as a hanger rod for laundry or pull-up bar. Doing so can loosen joints and fasteners.

— Outdoor spigots in cold weather regions need special attention

» Use extended length gate valves; the valve gate should extend past the interior wall

» Insulate the spigot during cold weather

» Fix a leaky spigots before freezing temperatures occur

posted by: Intellecy Inc
To download, click here > Plumbing Preventative Maintenance Checklist

Can the private sector save America’s aging water systems?

Increasingly, it is a private company, a shift from the mostly public ownership of the systems used to provide drinking water and remove waste that has prevailed in the U.S. since the early 1900s.

In the first half of 2017, companies spent, or planned to spend, about $2 billion in a total of 53 deals involving water and wastewater utilities. The biggest, energy giant Eversource’s recent $1.7 billion acquisition of water company Aquarion in New England, is still pending, according to Bluefield Research. And the Boston-based consulting and research firm expects that trend only to accelerate in the years ahead. 

The reason: Many cash-strapped towns, cities and counties around the country can no longer afford to provide water to residents, overwhelmed by the challenge of repairing aging infrastructure and a decades-long decline in federal funding.


While the money spent to privatize water facilities may seem relatively modest, given the US has roughly 78,000 community water and wastewater systems, it’s noticeable, according to Bluefield president Reese Tisdale. In part, that’s because of the enormous opportunity for private investment in water, which Bluefield pegs at $728 billion. 

“There seems to be no shortage of interest, and capital for that matter,” he said. “Rather, the challenge for new market entrants, particularly for those looking to secure a platform from which to grow, is scale. Big deals are difficult to find.”

Most Americans today are served by publicly owned water and wastewater systems, with small percentages direct wells or cooperatives. Bluefield estimates about 15 percent are owned by private players. An estimated 268 million people relied on public-supply water for their household use in 2010, or about 86 percent of the total population, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. 

That wasn’t always the case. As cities were growing in the 1800s, many relied on nearby rivers, surface water and local wells, often on private property and sometimes contaminated. Then, led by New York in 1842, major cities began to fund water sources from outside their own limits and began running their own systems. 

Still, until it was discovered that untreated water carried disease in the 1850s, most water went untreated. By the turn of the century, demand for safe water was increasing. Cities like Los Angeles began building large pipelines to supply otherwise arid areas. The federal government didn’t get involved in funding infrastructure until the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948. Later, when President Richard Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, water quality standards began to be enforced at the federal level. 

Beyond repairing old pipes and other infrastructure, a number of factors have municipalities looking for ways to fund, or even replace, their systems. 

Perhaps most important, millions of consumers face sharply higher water rates, putting pressure on public officials to respond. The combined water and wastewater bill for a typical U.S. household is up 18.5 percent since 2012, or 4.4 percent per year on average, according to Bluefield. And a recent Michigan State University study found the percentage of U.S. households who will find water bills unaffordable could triple, from 11.9 percent to 35.6 percent, in the next five years.

Another factor: Many systems are falling apart. If water main breaks now seem commonplace, that’s because they are. An estimated 240,000 occur every year in the US, according to the 2017 Infrastructure Report Card from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) released earlier this year.

In recent months, breaks in BrooklynDetroit, Chicago, BostonSan Diego and Lincoln, Nebraska, have all made headlines. That’s because many of the country’s nearly 1 million miles of pipes were laid in the early to mid-20th century, with such infrastructure having a typical lifespan of 75 to 100 years. The ASCE gives the drinking water infrastructure a D grade.

Despite the urgency of making these fixes, the federal government is now less likely to help with the cost. U.S. funding for water utilities peaked in 1976 at $16.9 billion and has since dropped to $4.3 billion in 2014, according to Bluefield. Meanwhile, public water systems also are facing more environmental pressures, with 5,300 in the U.S. listed with serious system violations. 


For revenue-starved local governments, then, selling a water system to a private company, either to own or operate, can present a way to solve a debt problem and pay for repairs. It can also eliminate a cost that competes with fire, police and schools.

Since 2013, Missouri, Illinois, New Jersey, Indiana, Pennsylvania have joined California to make it easier for private companies to consider investing in water facilities with legislation that puts a “fair market value” on systems.

“There are more dollars going into the utility network than there used to be,” Tisdale said.

States in the mid-Atlantic region have the greatest rate of private water system ownership. Texas and Pennsylvania are also hot spots for acquisitions, with 90 pending and completed deals in 2017, according to the Bluefield report.

Yet buying a system often isn’t easy, even for a large, established company. Another obstacle often comes in the form of community opposition, with residents bristling at the idea of a private company owning what’s largely seen as public service. That can make purchases long and contentious.

Just this month, New Jersey towns Long Hill and High Bridge rejected a plan to turn their water system over to New Jersey American Water, the state’s largest utility, according to Food and Water Watch, a public advocacy group that opposes private ownership.

Privatizing a system can result in higher rates and loss of public control, Food and Water Watch argued.

“Instead of rubber stamping a buyout, town leaders should now begin a thorough and transparent process to explore all the available options for properly investing in the system while maintaining public ownership and control,” the group said on its website.

But others strike a deal its residents see as palatable. In West Milford, New Jersey, voters earlier this month approved a sale of the township’s Municipal Utilities Authority to Suez Water New Jersey for $12.5 million, according to the Milford Messenger. Funds will go to pay off the township’s debt.

The Best Water Filter For Home Use (Pitcher, Charcoal, Under-Counter)

by Water Mama

A high-quality water filter is an important element of a healthy home and one of the easiest switches to make for a healthier life!

There are now great water filters available for any home type. From countertop units that work great in apartments to full under-counter and whole-house filters, it’s easy to find a great filter for your home!

Finding the healthiest and most nutrient dense food options is extremely important, but to some degree, finding the best water options can be even more important! Some sources of water can contain hundreds of chemicals and many of these chemicals can be more easily absorbed from water than from food.

What’s In Your Water?

If you are drinking tap water, the answer to that question is 300+ chemicals and pollutants, according to research from the Environmental Working Group. Among these contaminants are:

Volatile Organic Chemicals

(VOCs) such as pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals. These chemicals are found in most municipal water sources and even in well and other sources due to agricultural run-off and contamination. Research links certain VOCs to damage in the reproductive system, liver, kidneys and more.

Heavy Metals

Metals like lead and mercury are found in some water sources and have been linked to many health problems.

Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals

These chemicals may mimic or interfere with the normal hormones in the body and they are being found in increasing amounts in the water supply. From this testimony before a congressional committee on the issue:

Over the past fifty years, researchers observed increases in endocrine-sensitive health outcomes. Breast and prostatic cancer incidence increased between 1969 and 1986; there was a four-fold increase in ectopic pregnancies (development of the fertilized egg outside of the uterus) in the U.S. between 1970 and 1987; the incidence of cryptorchidism (undescended testicles) doubled in the U.K. between 1960 and the mid 1980s; and there was an approximately 42% decrease in sperm count worldwide between 1940 and 1990.

These chemicals are known to affect animals when they enter the water supply as well.


This is perhaps the most controversial of the contaminants in water (if something like water contaminants can be controversial!) because it is purposefully added to the water and there is much heated debate about the benefits/harm of this. Anyone who listened to the Heal Thy Mouth Summit is well aware of the potential dangers of fluoride thanks to Dr. Kennedy, but the short of it is this: If fluoride has any benefit, it would be directly to the teeth, as drinking the fluoride has not been statistically shown to increase oral health at all. Additionally, fluoride has been linked to thyroid problems and other disorders when consumed internally.

Check Your Water

You can check your local water quality report to see what contaminants are in your water supply. This is helpful in determining what you need to filter out when choosing a filter.

The easiest way to find your local water report is to check your local water company’s website. The report should be publicly available. If that doesn’t work, try Googling the name of your city and “water quality report” to find it.

Choosing A Water Filter

Once you know what you need to remove, it’s much easier to choose the best water filter option for your family. So what are the options for those of us not interested in drinking a chemical cocktail every time we are thirsty? These are the options I’ve tried in order of my least favorite to the filter we use now…

Bottled Water

Bottled water has started falling out of favor lately and with good reason. Mark’s Daily Apple did an in-depth analysis of why, but bottled water is not a good option for several reasons:

  • Chemicals from the plastic bottle itself can leech into the water
  • In most cases, the water itself is no different than tap water
  • Bottled water costs more in many cases that drinking tap water
  • Water bottles and other plastic waste are a major source of consumer waste and pollution each year!

Verdict: Not the best option on price, taste, or health so I skip it. That being said, having a bottle of water is very convenient, and there are some great sustainable options. Instead of plastic bottles, choose a high quality reusable one. These are my personal favorite water bottles that are plastic-free, sustainable and reusable!

Pitcher Water Filters

Pitcher water filters usually use Granulated Activated Charcoal to remove some contaminants. They are less expensive than other filter options upfront, but require frequent filling (especially for large families) and cartridge replacement (making them more expensive in the long run). Since the carbon is not solid, it does not remove all toxins though these filters will improve taste.

Pitcher filters will reduce chlorine, but are not effective at removing VOCs, heavy metals, endocrine disruptors or fluoride. This category also includes faucet mount external filters, which use the same technology.

Verdict: Better than nothing, but doesn’t remove the worst offenders and is somewhat costly to use compared to other options. If this is the only option that will work in your home, choose a high-quality pitcher like this Soma Plant Based Filter system, but if you have the space and the budget, a Berkey (see below) is a much better alternative.

Charcoal Stick Water Filters

For those tight on space, charcoal sticks are a great alternative too. Charcoal sticks can be used in any pitcher or water bottle and remove contaminants in the same way that many pitcher water filters do.

They are reusable, last for months and can be used as a refrigerator deodorizer or in the garden when you’re done with them!

Verdict: These charcoal water filter sticks are a great eco-friendly zero-waste option for those tight on space. Ideal for couples and those just filtering water for 1-2 people.

Reverse Osmosis (RO)

Reverse Osmosis filtration uses a membrane which removes many contaminants from water. It is usually paired with a Granulated Activated Charcoal filter to remove chlorine, can mount under the sink, and have a holding tank. The semipermeable membrane separates many contaminates (which usually have a larger particle size than water) from the water and rejects a large amount of water in the process.

The result is a waste of several gallons of water for every gallon filtered and many naturally occurring minerals (including calcium and magnesium) are also removed from the water. We used this type of filter for a long time but added trace minerals back into the water to replace the ones that were filtered out. It does remove a large amount of contaminants but is not the best option, in my opinion.


Removes a large amount of contaminants. Many unites are stored under the sink and have a simple spigot over the counter for getting the water. It reduces arsenic, asbestos, heavy metals, and fluoride.


Wastes more water than it produces. Does not reduce VOCs or endocrine disruptors. Requires adequate water pressure to work so it is not usable if home water supply is cut off. Takes up to an hour to filter one gallon of water and filters need to be replaced regularly. Removes necessary minerals from the water.


Certainly better than a lot of options out there and it does remove fluoride, but not the best due to its waste of water and costly filters.

Distilled Water

The distillation process uses heat to cause the water to become steam. The steam rises and moves to a cooling chamber where it turns back into liquid, leaving behind many contaminants. This type of filtration reduces large particles like minerals and heavy metals but does not remove endocrine disruptors or VOCs since they vaporize at equal or lower temps that water and rise with the steam. It does effectively kill bacteria.


Removes a large amount of contaminants. Does reduce arsenic, asbestos and heavy metals. Does remove fluoride.


Does not reduce VOCs or endocrine disruptors. Home distillation systems are often large and expensive. Uses a large amount of electricity and will not work in power outages. Removes necessary minerals from the water. Long term use can cause mineral deficiencies.


Better than bottled water, but definitely not the best option out there, especially for home situations.

Solid Block Carbon Filters

Recognized by the EPA as the best option for removing chemicals like herbicides, pesticides, and VOCs. Quality carbon block filters will remove chemicals, pesticides, bacteria, fluoride (with filter attachment), heavy metals, nitrates, nitrites, and parasites. Most are gravity based and can safely transform any type of water into safe drinking water including rain water, pond water and even sea water (though these types of water will clog the filters much more quickly and are not ideal). It will even filter water with food coloring to create clear water (yes, I tested it…).

This is the option that we used for years and my only complaint is that it does take up counter space. The advantages are that it is gravity based and will work even without electricity or running water. While these types of units can be more pricey that pitcher filters or other filters up front, they seem to be the least expensive in the long run and require the fewest filter replacements (a big plus for me!). These types of filters also don’t remove naturally occurring minerals from the water, making it the best tasting filtered water option, in my opinion.

Using a filter calculator, I’ve determined that the specific system we use won’t need to be replaced for over 20 years with our current usage (though I’m guessing our usage will increase as the kids get older).

The most common type of this filter is the Berkey and it comes in many sizes for different uses. It can even be used camping to filter river water for drinking! (Tested this too and it saved one of my brother in-laws from Giardia when other members of his group got it while camping).


Filters VOCs, heavy metals, chlorine, fluoride, nitrates, nitrites, bacteria, parasites, and other chemicals. Very inexpensive per gallon cost and infrequent filter replacement. Great tasting water. Doesn’t require electricity or water pressure to work. Portable options can even be used while traveling.


Does require counter space and has to be manually filled (wasn’t a big deal for us, we just fill at night and we have plenty of water the next day). More expensive up front. Does not remove endocrine disruptors and there are some concerns with third party testing with some brands.


A good option, especially in places where under-counter or permanent systems are not an option. We used this one for years before our current system.

Under Counter Multi-Stage Filters:

After years of research and trying all of the options above at some point, we finally found and switched to an under-counter multi-stage water filter system that meets all of the criteria and exceeds them. I review the one we personally use in depth in this post, but in short, it filters water through a 14-stage process that utilizes most of the methods listed above, along with others like UV and adds minerals back in. During the filtration process, water goes through these stages:

1 – Five Micron Pre-Filter
2 – Internal Coconut Shell Carbon Filter (like Berkey)
3 – Reverse Osmosis Membrane (Purifier #1) (like regular RO but more efficient)
4 – Mixed Bed De-Ionization Purifier (Purifier #2)
5 – Mixed Bed De-Ionization Purifier (Purifier #3)
6 & 7 – Homeopathic Restructuring – Erasing Memory, Molecule Coherence
8 – Holding Tank – standard tank holds about 3 gallons of pure water. Other tanks are available.
9 – Ultraviolet Light – 14 Watt
10 – Reprogramming – Adding Natural Mineral Properties
11-12 – Far-Infrared Reprogramming
13 – Coconut Shell Carbon Post-Filtration
14 – Alka-Min (Alkalizing, Ionic Remineralization)

It removes fluoride, lead, chlorine, MTBE, chromium-6, nitrates, pesticides, pharmaceutical residues, water-borne illness and more.

We absolutely love this water filter and I’ve recommended it to my own family members.


Removes the widest range of contaminants. Very easy to use with no manual filling required. Spigot attaches near sink for easy use. Water tastes great.


Must be installed under the sink. We had to hire a plumber for this, though we probably could have figured it out ourselves, but I was reluctant to try (and my husband HATES plumbing). More expensive than other options.


It’s definitely the best option I’ve found and the one we currently use.

Final Thoughts on Water Filters

As you’re probably aware, there are many water filter options available (and I think we’ve tried most of them over the years!) and the quality can vary greatly. Since drinking clean water is one the most important things you can do for your health, having a reliable water filter or a source of good clean water to consume should be at the top of your natural living priority list.

America has a water crisis no one is talking about

Outdated infrastructure is making water too expensive for millions of families.

Updated by

Access to clean water is a basic human right. Yet for 14 million US households, or 12 percent of homes, water bills are too expensive. And as the cost of water rises, even more Americans are at risk of not being able to pay their monthly water bill.

According to a paper from researchers at Michigan State University, water prices will have to increase by 41 percent in the next five years to cover the costs of replacing aging water infrastructure and adapting to climate change. That will mean that nearly 41 million households — or a staggering third of all US households — may not be able to afford water for drinking, bathing, and cooking by 2020.

There is no law that guarantees water access for poor Americans. And most financial assistance is left to the discretion of individual water utilities. So customers who have fallen behind in payments can have their water services abruptly shut off.

More than 50,000 households in Detroit have lost water services since 2014 because they couldn’t pay their bills. Flint, Michigan, which is still in the throes of a lead poisoning crisis, is now threatening to terminate water services for more than 8,000 people who haven’t paid their bill.


But it’s not just the Michigan urban poor who are at risk.

Map of census tracts where water bills eat up a large portion of people’s income

The researchers found thousands of other census tracts around the US where the median income was low enough to put people at risk of not be able to afford their water bills as water prices continue to rise.

The Environmental Protection Agency has recommended that water and wastewater services should not make up more than 4.5 percent of a household’s income. So the researchers considered places where the median income was less than $32,000 in 2014 to be high risk (in dark blue), while places where the median incomes range from $32,000 to $45,120 (in light blue) were at risk. In all, we’re looking at a huge number of areas across the US where millions of households are struggling to pay their water bill.


A third of American households might be unable to pay their water bill by 2020

According to the American Water Works Association, on average we pay less than half a penny for a gallon of water. But “it doesn’t mean there aren’t families that struggle to pay,” said Greg Kail, the communications director at AWWA.

And people in poorer states like Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Kentucky, and Arkansas are especially at risk of not being able to pay their water bills, according to Elizabeth Mack, a researcher at Michigan State and the co-author of the paper, which appeared online in the journal PLOS One. In Mississippi, nearly 75 percent of the state was either at high risk or at risk. But the problem wasn’t concentrated in just rural areas either. Mack also found 81 percent of high-risk census tracts were located in metropolitan areas.

And if water rates increase by 41 percent in the next five years (as Mack thinks they will), the number of households unable to pay their water bill will nearly triple, from 14 million to 41 million.

Chart showing projected water rate hikes and the number of households that will struggle to pay their bills

The 6 percent increase reflects the actual change in water costs between 2014 and 2015, and the 41 percent increase is how much water prices rose from 2010 to 2015. (Mack is assuming water rates will increase at the same clip as they did from 2010 to 2015 and that median household income will remain flat — reasonable considering household income has seen no real growth in the past 20 years.)


“I don’t know why people haven’t paid more attention to this,” she said.

The huge costs of repairing water infrastructure is forcing water rates up

After World War II, America went on something of an infrastructure kick, building an expansive network of water pipes in cities across the country. But now these pipes are more than 60 years old and in many instances are in desperate need of repair.

Federal funding for water infrastructure has fallen from more than 60 percent in the late 1970s to just 9 percent now. And civil engineers estimate the price tag for overhauling America’s drinking water system and bringing it up to code will be at least $1 trillion over the next 25 years. Add to that the estimated $14 billion to $26 billion needed to adapt water systems to climate change by 2050.

Tracy Mehan, executive director of government affairs at AWWA, has pushed for an increase in federal funding but says we can’t avoid higher water rates. “We’ve coasted for decades in most places around the country. Our rates are half that of northern European cities,” he said. “Rates are going up and need to go up.”

Just how far up? Mack thinks annual water bills will increase by nearly $600 over the next five years to around $2,000, or $169 per month. (The average annual bill is currently $1,440, or $120 a month.)


What’s more, Mack says her estimates are conservative compared with those of Circle of Blue, a nonprofit focused on issues of water affordability. Circle of Blue found cities like Austin; Charlotte, North Carolina; Chicago; San Francisco; and Tucson, Arizona, all experienced water rate hikes greater than 50 percent within the past five years.

Here’s Circle of Blue’s map of water prices in 30 major US cities as of 2015. Atlanta leads the nation with the most expensive monthly water bill — $326 on average. (Circle of Blue calculated monthly water bills for a family of four using roughly 12,000 gallons of water a month, which the EPA has estimated is average household use).

Map showing the average water prices in 30 major US cities as of 2015

This means for a family of four making $32,000 in Atlanta, an annual water bill of $3,912 eats up more than 12 percent of their income — and again, that’s three times what the EPA recommends a family should be paying for water.

Some cities are restructuring water rates based on income, which could help struggling families

One possible solution that Mack said is gaining traction to help low-income Americans address affordability issues is restructuring water rates based on income.

Restructuring water rates involves determining the number of gallons a customer can use each month for a prenegotiated fee. If a customer uses more than the set amount, they pay a penalty or overage fee. Recent research shows that when utilities restructure rates, it can help offset the rising costs of water service.

But as cities move to restructure rates and redistribute costs, it’s important they implement lower cost rate structures for low-income households. Otherwise, restructuring rates can backfire and poorer households can end up with an even higher bill than what they were paying before. Mack says a food stamp equivalent program for water services or some kind of low income subsidy could help.


“People could think about setting up lower fees for different income brackets,” she said. “Set a minimal level of necessary water use [for lower-income households] and if you use more than that, from that point you pay more.”

And some cities like Philadelphia are already moving to implement a rate structure that offers low-income families reduced water rates. In July, the city is rolling out a tiered rate structure for customers whose incomes fall at or below 150 percent of the poverty line.

With a third of Americans at risk of not being able to pay their water bill by 2020, we need to move quickly to invest in infrastructure and restructure water rates in a way that doesn’t negatively impact low-income customers. Otherwise we could be looking at a national crisis similar to what’s playing out in Detroit and Flint — thousands of families losing their water because they can’t afford their bill.

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