What is it about?

Residential water supplies are affected by depletion of the cheapest and easiest supplies, exacerbated by population growth or competing users such as agriculture. They are also affected by climate change reducing river flows. There are utility-scale solutions to these challenges, including include long-distance importation, desalination, and direct potable reuse. These are more "difficult" and "costly" ways of getting potable water. We develop scenarios of water supply cost increases for El Paso Water (El Paso, Texas) for 50 years, translated into increases in the price of residential water. Looking at the absolute minimum water needed per person, and the average number of people in the residence, we calculate how much the water bill will increase in each future scenario for unavoidable basic necessary water. Knowing the average household incomes for the entire utility service area and for specific census tracts, we examine the poorest families, the bottom 20% and 40% of incomes. Future water bills for a basic human water need may cost up to 10% of family incomes. They are disproportionately Hispanic in El Paso. The future portends worsening water costs for these poor consumers. Public policy decisions, such as whether to cut off households for unpaid bills or how much to subsidize water for the very poor, loom on the horizon.

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Why is it important?

The future of water will be more costly and difficult. The crucial point is that in many cases, we are not "running out" of water, but instead transitioning from cheap and easy water to costly and difficult water. This is a key case of the impact of an "environmental transition" into the future. The poorest people in society are particularly vulnerable during such transitions, and deserve focused attention.


I am a member of the El Paso community. Fortunately my income as a professor allows me to afford water, even as its price is rising. But the people who I live with, including many of my students and their families, struggle with environmental transitions like water and electricity. Indeed, paying monthly bills adds to the difficult decision to stay in school, as opposed to working full time. I am now working to learn from visiting families, discussing homes, and discussing bills, to understand these emerging social-environmental issues and what we can as communities and a nation do about them.

Josiah Heyman Heyman
University of Texas at El Paso

Read the Original

This page is a summary of: Predictions of household water affordability under conditions of climate change, demographic growth, and fresh groundwater depletion in a southwest US city indicate increasing burdens on the poor, PLoS ONE, November 2022, PLOS,
DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0277268.
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