There is no global water crisis, because all water problems are local, or regional, and their solutions must be local and regional.  There is no global water crisis, there are a thousand water crises, each distinct.

–Charles Fishman, The Big Thirst (2012)

LDF and other water equality advocates must continue to play a leading role in alleviating the burden of water unaffordability on Black communities.  When appropriate, litigation should be aggressively pursued to tackle water injustices in communities across the nation.  We should advocate for the legislative and other policy changes outlined below, which may be the most efficient way to make water more affordable and eliminate problematic government practices.  Regardless of the form of advocacy, we should draw upon the considerable history provided herein—both of the development of waterworks in the U.S. and the ways that municipalities have used water to assert power over Black communities—as we fight to lessen discrimination in water services and promote access to affordable, clean water as a right that should be shared by all.
There are a number of reforms that advocates could pursue at the state and local level related to water affordability. 
  • Water Lien Sales.  Advocates should promote state or local legislation banning lien sales based solely on unpaid water or sewer bills, for both homeowners and renters.  Instead of placing liens on homes, municipalities could allow delinquent water customers to enter into payment plans, based on their ability to repay debt actually owed. Alternatively, state and local governments should raise or establish the minimum amount of arrears that will trigger a tax sale to ensure that residents will not lose their homes for unpaid water bills of just a few hundred dollars. States should also revise the process for a homeowner to redeem their home once a lien is placed on it by lowering the maximum interest rate that can be charged on the lien and eliminating other fees and costs.  At the very least, homeowners and tenants who are part of vulnerable populations, such as the elderly or people with disabilities, should be exempted from water lien sales. 
  • Water Service Terminations.  Utilities should be barred from terminating water service for unpaid water and sewer bills, particularly for arrearages below a certain threshold amount.  Service terminations should be absolutely prohibited for vulnerable populations, including the elderly, families with young children, pregnant or nursing mothers, and people with disabilities or medical conditions. Additionally, utilities should be barred from terminating service on a per-neighborhood basis, which can result in disparate outcomes based on race in cities with highly segregated housing patterns.  Residents should not be forced to pay a penalty to have service reconnected. 
  • Customer Assistance Programs.  Utilities should be required to offer customer assistance programs for low-income and other vulnerable populations (and if necessary, amend or repeal state laws that currently prohibit utilities from offering such programs), based on Philadelphia’s model program.  Affordability programs should be tailored to meet the needs of the relevant customer base and ensure that residents are charged for water or sewer service based on their actual ability to pay.   Experts have determined that affordability programs increase the overall amount of revenue that utilities receive for water and sewer services. 
  • Billing Practices.  Utilities must take steps to ensure that bills to customers are accurate and correctly prompt errors.   They should be required to provide adequate notice of rate increases, service termination and reconnection procedures, and ways for customers to dispute a bill, including the right to a hearing.  If utilities do not currently offer customer hearings, they should be required to implement a process for homeowners and tenants to dispute bills and other charges that comports with procedural due process requirements.  Utilities should also be required to consider and implement other billing changes to aid customers in paying their bills, such as monthly (as opposed to quarterly) billing, payment plans (with no down payments), and rate structures based on usage rather than fixed fees. 
  • Data Reporting.  Utilities should be required to engage in mandatory data collection and public reporting on rate increases, arrearages, service terminations, and water lien sales.   Data collection should include geographic and demographic information as applicable. 
  • Ban on Privatization.  As in Baltimore, states and localities should consider legislation to prohibit the sale of a publicly-owned waterworks to a private company. 
  • Right to Water.  Like in California, states and localities should pass legislation establishing a human right to affordable, clean water. 

The need for national legislation guaranteeing a right to affordable clean water is paramount.  For years, LDF has been part of the National Coalition for Legislation on Water Affordability, founded by Detroit attorney Alice Jennings and others to develop national legislation that sets minimum standards for water affordability nationwide.  Any proposed legislation must require states to enact customer affordability programs for low-income residents.  It should also prohibit water service terminations for nonpayment for vulnerable populations and ban lien sales based solely on water or sewer debt. 
Advocates should also request increased federal funding to states and municipalities to aid with costly infrastructure improvements.  They should also promote federal aid to low-income families to assist with water bills.  For example, Congress could expand LIHEAP to allow states to aid low-income families with their water and sewer bills or create an equivalent program for water and sewer.  As briefly discussed above, LIHEAP is a federal block grant program that provides states with funds to assist low-income households with expenses for heating or cooling, as well as energy crisis intervention and weatherization.



The program was created in response to the oil crisis of the late 1970s, when energy prices skyrocketed.  While the LIHEAP statute requires states to target assistance to the most vulnerable households, families are eligible for assistance if their income is at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty level or 60 percent of state median income. Most LIHEAP funds are used to help families pay for heating assistance.[vi]  LIHEAP funds cannot currently be used for water or sewer bills. While LIHEAP suffers from a lack of consistent funding, and President Trump proposed eliminated funding for LIHEAP in his budgets for 2018 and 2019, an expanded or equivalent program could make great strides in the battle for affordable water for all.