Water rates have soared by 41% between 2010 and 2015, according to water industry figures. If that trend continues, monthly water bills could reach a national average of $170 a month, according to new research funded by Michigan State University and the National Science Foundation.
The Environmental Protection Agency, you do remember the EPA, right, recommends that a household’s water and wastewater spending should make up no more than 4.5% of a household’s income. On current trends by 2020 an estimated 41 million households would be facing unaffordable water bills by the EPA’s standard.
What’s going on? Years of under-investment in water systems for supplying drinking water and treating waste water have added up as grants from the federal government to help cities and towns repair and replace their water systems have dried up, and states haven’t moved to pick up the slick. That has left localities and the country’s 155,000 public water systems with no alternative but to raise water rates to pay for those investments themselves. The results in a city such as Baltimore are eye-popping. Water rates have gone up by 120% in the past 10 years. Last year the city moved to increase water rates another 31% over the next three years to finance repairs to the system and to make fixes in the system that bills households for water use. An estimated one-third of city residents are struggling with the higher charges, the Public Water for All campaign of Food and Water Watch estimates.
With the Trump administration targeting the EPA for big budget cuts including those to its grant programs localities can’t count on help from that direction. One recent memo leaked from inside the EPA estimated $513 million in cuts to the grant programs that help support U.S. water systems. And if the Trump administration’s $1 trillion infrastructure program is structured to rely mostly on private investment supported by tax subsidies, as is favored by Congressional Republicans and on some days by the White House, that effort isn’t likely to provide much help either. Investing in water infrastructure just doesn’t provide the kinds of returns that private investors are likely to seek. Better to put your investment dollars into toll roads and bridges or airports with user fees that can provide a high and steady yield.
Frankly I don’t see an investment angle in this crisis. Water utilities face huge costs to upgrade and repair aging systems and rate payers who are struggling with current bills don’t seem a good source of the increased revenues necessary to pay for those investments and to provide investors with an attractive yield. Regulators of public utilities will face pressure to keep costs down and that will make for a contentious environment for any rate increases.
I’m always on the lookout for investments in water since we clearly face a crisis in water supply in the United States and globally and there ought to be an opportunity to make a profit from fixing the problem. That is the way that capitalism is supposed to work–but unfortunately it doesn’t do a very good job when we’re talking about investments in what are called public goods and that are treated, with good logic, as public utilities. (Which is why governments at various levels traditionally fill the capital spending gap.)
I do have one suggestion for a stock buy that I’ll give you in a post on Friday. This company won’t address the crisis in public water supply but it does have a profitable opportunity in the supply of what I’d call “private” water to corporate customers.
And I’ll keep looking for ways to invest in the larger crisis.