The Price Per Gallon of Water: What Will We Pay in 2020?

July 9, 2020 • Devin Partida


For as much of the world’s surface is covered by it, people still pay a high price for water. The U.N. recognizes access to water as a global crisis that has yet to be addressed in any meaningful way. At the same time, those who already know the pleasures of running tap water seem to endure higher prices each year.

That’s because, on average, the price per gallon of water has indeed been rising consistently for years. The cost of water in 2020 won’t break that pattern. Why is that, and what needs to be done?

Which Areas Are Seeing the Biggest Changes?

According to the U.S.Bureau of Labor Statistics and an annual study from Bluefield Research, the cost of water is rising more quickly than inflation. It’s also increasing faster than the prices of other essential commodities like gasoline and food products.

U.S. households paid an average of $104 per month for water and wastewater service in 2019, which amounts to a 30% increase in less than 10 years.

For a preview of how things will play out throughout 2020, we can look at changes between 2018 and 2019 in the price per gallon of water in major cities across the U.S.

In their most recent survey, Bluefield Research singled out 50 of the largest American cities for closer study. They found that the average water bill for U.S. households sits at $43.02, and the average wastewater bill is $60.87. Together, these add up to the new total average of $104 per home per billing period.

Here are some of the most notable results:

  • Baltimore: +$26.50
  • Portland, Maine: +$13.88
  • San Francisco: +$12.83
  • Portland, Oregon: +$11.15
  • Seattle: +$10.75

Very few of these major metro areas saw their prices decrease over the same period. Of the 50 cities mentioned in the survey, only five showed falling prices. These were:

  • Riverside: -$21.96
  • Philadelphia: -$2.10
  • Louisville: -$1.91
  • Dallas: -$1.49
  • Indianapolis: -$0.12

Why Are Water Prices Rising Across the U.S.?

There are a few major reasons why American households are saddled with a higher price per gallon of water with each passing year.

One is decades of underinvestment in water, wastewater and stormwater infrastructure. America is host to around 1 million miles of water pipes spanning the country. Despite a typical lifespan of 75 to 100 years, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), a considerable portion of this vast delivery network dates back to the early and middle 20th century.

In its annual Infrastructure Report Card, the ASCE awarded the United States a grade of “D” for the overall quality of its water and wastewater infrastructure.

The continuous degradation of our infrastructure is a direct consequence of a regressive tax system and faltering revenues. Bringing America’s water, transportation and energy systems up to modern standards and hardening them against climate change would be less costly to the nation than any one of the recent tax-breaks-for-the-wealthy passed into law by the federal government.

Climate change is the second significant reason why America’s water infrastructure becomes simultaneously more decrepit and more expensive to maintain over time. As average temperatures rise around the globe, more  water leaves the Earth’s surface to be sequestered in the atmosphere, leading to depleted groundwater sources and ever-worsening droughts.

The megadrought developing now in California is the worst the state has seen in centuries.

Moreover, when storms do occur, they’re more intense than they would have been without climate change and bring vastly more water back to earth over a very short period. This leads to greater stresses on and damage to stormwater management and water treatment systems, along with higher costs to maintain and fix city infrastructure.

Building green spaces in major cities would help keep some of this rainfall out of the stormwater system. Still, even these investments are likely to be insufficient as climate change drags on without a substantial and organized action plan for the country.

Bracing for Water Shortages and Affordability Problems in 2020 and Beyond

The cost of water in 2020 is going to follow the same pattern as the last decade. Namely, it’s going to get more expensive. Currently, one in 10 American households struggles to pay their water bills. If projections from researchers at the University of Michigan pan out, this figure will rise to 30% of U.S. households by 2022. It’s difficult not to qualify the situation as a crisis.

Philadelphia and some other cities have implemented income-based water bills to help struggling families lower their cost of living. However, these are stopgap measures.

Until the United States’ tax system becomes progressive rather than regressive and cities reclaim the funds they need for substantial infrastructure projects, the problem will only get more expensive to fix over time. It will continue to cause unnecessary hardship for some of society’s most vulnerable people.

Research from the World Resources Institute shows that humanity could solve its water crisis for the foreseeable future by allocating just 1% of global GDP to get it done. The question isn’t whether it’s affordable — the question is why the tiny minority with the means and reach to intervene choose not to.