Americans, unlike people in many parts of the world, tend to take clean water for granted. For most of us, it’s also cheap: The average U.S. household pays $372 a year for drinking water, according to the American Water Works Association.
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But the days of leisurely showers and generously irrigated lawns could be disappearing. In California, the worst drought on record has forced some communities to impose mandatory water restrictions. Other California communities have asked residents to cut their water use voluntarily by 20% or more.
Elsewhere, there’s plenty of water, but the quality is questionable. Weeks after a chemical leak in early January contaminated the Elk River in Charleston, W. Va., thousands of local residents weren’t sure whether their tap water was safe to drink. And in February, a broken pipe poured thousands of tons of coal ash into the Dan River, which supplies water to communities in North Carolina and Virginia.
These water-related disasters have implications for consumers across the U.S. California’s drought is expected to drive up prices for produce this year -- particularly for broccoli, lettuce and nuts. If the drought continues into 2015, prices will rise much higher, says Curt Covington, managing director for Bank of the West’s agricultural division.
You may be able to reduce the hit to your grocery bill by cutting back on broccoli and pistachios, but higher water bills will be harder to avoid. Jurisdictions in northern California will likely need to raise rates to build facilities that can capture and store water during rainy periods. Deteriorating pipes throughout the U.S. contribute to waste. In its 2013 infrastructure report card, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave U.S. drinking-water systems a D, noting that many of the country’s pipes and water mains are more than 100 years old. Some date back to the Civil War and might be examined only when a problem occurs. There are an estimated 240,000 water-main breaks a year in the U.S. “Much of our drinking-water infrastructure is nearing the end of its useful life,” the report says.
The American Water Works Association estimates that it will cost more than $1 trillion to expand and replace outdated pipes over the next 25 years, causing some homeowners’ water bills to triple. Although rate increases won’t happen all at once, “the investment has to be made because without a strong water system, you don’t have a strong, vibrant community,” says Tom Curtis, deputy executive director of the AWWA.
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Homeowners can prepare for rate increases by adopting measures that are already widespread in California, such as installing low-flow toilets and water-saving shower heads. Look for products with the WaterSense label, which are 20% more efficient than comparable products, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. For more on WaterSense products and tips on how to reduce your water use, go to www.epa.gov/watersense.
One of the lessons of the recent water crises is that “we can’t take what comes out of our taps for granted,” says Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, a research and advocacy group. “It’s really the one thing we can’t do without, and yet we pay less for our water than we do for our cell phones or our cable TV.”