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Water costs balloon in cities along the Great Lakes

The Great Lakes are an indispensable source of drinking water for more than 48 million people in the U.S. and Canada. But in six large cities on the shorelines, residents are facing a cost crisis. WBEZ reporter Maria Ines Zamudio discusses the findings of a nine-month investigation by American Public Media, Great Lakes Today and NPR with Hari Sreenivasan.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The Great Lakes and the channels that connect them make up one of the largest freshwater systems on earth. The lakes are an indispensable source of drinking water for more than 48 million people in the U.S. and Canada. But a nine-month investigation by American Public Media. Great Lakes today and NPR found that in six large cities on the shorelines of these lakes residents are facing a growing water crisis. Maria Ines Zamudio, an investigative reporter with WBEZ in Chicago, joined me recently to discuss the findings.

  • Maria Ines Zamudio:

    We found that the cost of water in the Great Lakes region has increased dramatically in some cities like Chicago that cost us tripled and in other cities like Detroit and Cleveland the cost has doubled. And so what we wanted to find out is how the access to water is compared to other areas. So we compared it to Phoenix, Arizona which is a city that gets most of its water from the Colorado River about 200 miles away. And we found that the cost of water and Phoenix is actually a lot a lot less than the cities across the Great Lakes region.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So you've got a city that's in the desert and it's getting its water from 200 miles away and that's still cheaper than said that's on the Great Lakes adjacent to one of the largest resources of freshwater that America has. So give me an idea, like for a family of four what kind of money are we talking about?

  • Maria Ines Zamudio:

    So we calculated the average cost for a family of four assuming that they use about 50 gallons of water per person per day. So in one of the cities that had the largest increase was Chicago. So the cost went from a hundred and seventy eight dollars in 2007 to about 576 dollars in 2018. And so what we know is that the mayor increased the rates in 2011 to cover infrastructure costs. But then in 2017 he actually added a water and sewer tax to to replenish the municipal pensions. So we know that some of that money is going to cover other expenses.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    OK. You know, it's fine if you can afford it but what happens to people who are going to pay for that water in poor areas?

  • Maria Ines Zamudio:

    So that was one of the other really startling realities of our investigation is that we analyzed a shutoff notices and each one of the six cities that we investigated and we found that this shutoff notices were disproportionately concentrated in mostly poor black and Latino neighborhoods. In Chicago for example, you have to pay an additional forty dollars to get your water reconnected. You have to get in a payment plan if you can't afford to pay the entire balance. And on top of that, you pay interest on the amount owed. So we during the course of the reporting we found that a lot of poor families get trapped in this cycle of trying to keep the water on and having to pay additional fees. We found that the city of Chicago charged about seven million dollars in fines and fees. And so those fines and fees were also concentrated in poor mostly poor neighborhoods and Chicago at the root of this is an aging infrastructure.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    At the root of this is an aging infrastructure of how are water actually gets delivered to our town. Right? I mean these are significant costs that every city is going to have to bear.

  • Maria Ines Zamudio:

    Right. So I think getting it at the reason why we've experienced such an increase in the. Cost of water was one of the more difficult parts of this reporting. We know that the cities that we looked at. Have experienced dramatic population loss. For example Detroit has a water infrastructure for a city that was for about a million population but now about half of that live there. And so the folks who are now living in Detroit are having to subsidize this very large infrastructure. And the other part of it is that the federal support for water pipes reconstruction and all of that stuff has decreased dramatically. So what a lot of cities have been doing is trying to add these hikes so that they can keep up with. You know fixing the pipes and keeping up with the infrastructure.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Alright, Chicago WBEZ reporter Maria Ines Zamudio. Thanks so much.

  • Maria Ines Zamudio:

    Thank you for having me.

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