A drop of water about to fall off the end of a faucet

Millions of Americans risk losing running water if they fall behind with bill payments in coming months, as mass layoffs triggered by the coronavirus pandemic force families to make impossible trade-offs on paying household expenses.

Around two-fifths of the country rely on water utilities that have not suspended the policy of shutoffs for nonpayment, despite public health warnings that good hygiene—specifically frequent hand-washing—is crucial to preventing spread of the highly contagious virus, according to data analyzed by Food and Water Watch (FWW) and the Guardian.

The virus has spread exponentially in recent months, and deaths have spiked, too.

“This is an emergency and the priority is to stop the spread so this is a no-brainer, everyone must have access to water . . . this should not be a partisan issue,” said Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Mich., who is pushing federal intervention. (Read how Coca-Cola and Pepsi make millions bottling tap water in cities that shut off water to residents.) 

America's Water Crisis

In addition to the public health toll, the economic impact of the pandemic is already devastating families, with close to 10 million people filing for unemployment benefits during the second half of March and an unprecedented spike in demand for emergency aid at food banks. One in 2 American adults have either no emergency savings or not enough to cover three months of living expenses, according to Bankrate’s 2019 Financial Security Index.

Yet despite the evolving economic and health crises, only 62 percent of the population have so far been protected from water shutoffs. And just 11 percent of these utilities have explicitly pledged to reconnect households currently without running water due to unpaid bills.

“As unemployment reaches record highs, millions of Americans are going to have to choose between paying for food, rent, and bills . . . water is not something people should have to trade off,” said Mary Grant, director of water at FWW.

There is no national database tracking shutoffs or the number of U.S. households left without running water. But in 2016, 1 in every 20 households (PDF) were disconnected by public water departments, leaving an estimated 15 million Americans without running water.

‘Communities Most Vulnerable to COVID-19 Are Most Vulnerable to Water Shutoffs’

The highest shutoffs rates were concentrated in southern and rural states including Louisiana, Arkansas, Florida, and Oklahoma. Some of the hardest-hit areas, including New Orleans; Detroit; Milwaukee; Mecklenburg County, N.C.; Ada, Idaho; and Dekalb, Ga., are now COVID-19 hot spots, according to analysis by The Guardian.

In New Orleans, which has the fourth highest rate of coronavirus infection per capita in the country, only 300 households have so far been reconnected and the city does not know how many remain without running water.

“It’s a package of related factors—institutional racism, environmental injustice, and poverty—which means communities most vulnerable to COVID-19 are the same communities most vulnerable to water shutoffs,” said Grant.

So far, the moratoriums on shutoffs include 12 statewide orders, which apply to private and public water providers, issued by the governors of California, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Montana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, and Wisconsin.

In early April, a coalition of community groups called on New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to issue a moratorium on price hikes, fines, and shutoffs until 180 days after the end of the state of emergency.

Currently, 8.5 million stateside New Yorkers still face the threat of disconnection if they fail to keep up with bills, while the number of households without running water is unknown. Shutoffs have been banned in New York City since before the pandemic, but in Buffalo, for example, taps were turned off on 17,000 occasions between 2015 and March 2019. Buffalo has suspended shutoffs but is not reconnecting those without running water.

Access to Water Is a 'Poor Person’s Issue’

Meanwhile, there are signs of some political will to tackle the issue in Washington.

The House version of the third rescue package included $1.5 billion to assist low-income households with water bills during the crisis, and a condition that required localities and utilities to suspend utility shutoffs in order to qualify for financial aid.

But the clauses were left out of the final bill approved by the senate March 26.

Instead, congressional Democrats want $12 billion for water subsidies in the fourth rescue package, with grants for utilities conditional on shutoff moratoriums. The National Association of Clean Water Agencies expects the pandemic to cost $12.5 billion in lost revenue due to unpaid bills, debt forgiveness, and restoring service.

Last week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi signaled plans to propose $85 billion for water projects in a subsequent forthcoming infrastructure bill to stimulate economic recovery.

Almost 28 million people could lose their jobs by May, according to forecasting firm Oxford Economics—more than double the jobs cut during the 2007 to 2009 recession and its aftermath.

Rep. Lawrence said: “Access to water has not been a priority in this country because it’s been a poor person’s issue . . . now it’s a national concern and we have to transform our mindset.”

Editor’s Note: This article is co-published in partnership with The Guardian. It was originally published by The Guardian on April 6, 2020. This article was updated to include information about CR's partnership with the Guardian on issues related to water quality and access.

This article was supported by the 11th Hour Project.

America’s Water Crisis

Consumer Reports has a long history of investigating America’s water. In 1974, we published a landmark three-part series (PDF) revealing that water purification systems in many communities had not kept pace with increasing levels of pollution and that many community water supplies might be contaminated. Our work helped lead to Congress enacting the Safe Drinking Water Act in December 1974.

More than 45 years later, America is still struggling with a dangerous divide between those who have access to safe and affordable drinking water and those who don’t. Communities of color often are affected disproportionately by this inequity. Consumer Reports remains committed to exposing the weaknesses in our country’s water system, including raising questions about Americans’ reliance on bottled water as an alternative—and the safety and sustainability implications of this dependence.

In addition to our ongoing investigations into bottled water, we are proud to be partnering with our readers and those of the Guardian US, another institution dedicated to journalism in the public interest, to test for dangerous contaminants in tap water samples from more than 100 communities around the country.

America’s Water Crisis is the name we are jointly giving to this project and the series of articles we co-publish on the major challenges many in the U.S. face getting access to safe, clean, and affordable water. We will share the results of our upcoming test findings with you. In the meantime, you can join our social media conversation around water under the hashtag #waterincrisis.

Gwendolyn Bounds
Chief Content Officer, Consumer Reports