Report Launch: "Tapped Out: Threats to the Human Right to Water in the Urban United States"

April 17, 2013 —

Skyrocketing water rates have left many people in the United States unable to pay their water bills, leaving significant numbers without access to running water in their homes.  This is the conclusion of a new report, "Tapped Out: Threats to the Human Right to Water in the Urban United States," by nine Georgetown University Law Center students working under the auspices of the Georgetown Law Human Rights Institute. The report will be publicly launched on Wednesday, April 17, 2013, at 3:30pm, at the Georgetown University Law Center, McDonough Room 160, located at 600 New Jersey Avenue NW, Washington D.C.

"Access to affordable water for basic needs is a fundamental human right," said Erik Sperling, a second-year Law Center student and member of the fact-finding team.  “We heard repeatedly, however, that people are not able to enjoy this right in practice because the cost of water is simply too high.  And the evidence indicates this is a growing problem nationally.”

The report is based on approximately 70 interviews conducted by the students in Detroit and Boston in January 2013, as part of a year-long practicum: “Human Rights Fact-Finding: Marginalized Communities and the Right to Safe Water.” Interviewees included families and individuals who had lost access to water or had to make other sacrifices to maintain their water service, in addition to social service providers, government and utility officials, and academics specializing in the area.

The student investigators analyzed how existing federal, state, and local laws and policies, when coupled with long-term planning issues and the economic decline facing many American cities, have resulted in an untold number of water shut-offs. Where shut-offs were avoided, families frequently had to sacrifice spending on other basic needs such as groceries and medicine, often compromising other human rights in the process. The report contends that the problem is likely to spread, citing a 2012 survey of 100 municipalities that showed water prices doubling in more than a quarter of the cities, and even tripling in some, since 2000.

The report recommends that the federal government expand the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program to include individual water assistance. In addition, it advises that Congress authorize a plan for extending infrastructure financing, such as the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act, currently in committee, which would provide federal credit assistance to finance water infrastructure projects in the form of direct loans and loan guarantees, and also increase funding for the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act State Revolving Loan Fund. The report asks state and local governments to adopt appropriate water affordability standards and water shut-off prohibitions for publicly funded water infrastructure projects, and to ensure that unpaid balances are not added to property taxes or titles in a way that precludes use of the property.

The report also calls on municipal water providers to avoid water shut-offs, particularly for vulnerable populations, and ensure that water service be maintained without exception to households with senior citizens, children, disabled persons or people with chronic illnesses. Further, the report proposes that water providers implement one of the various progressive rate structures while also employing effective and affordable assistance plans for consumers facing economic hardship.