Bluefield report examines average monthly water, sewer charges across U.S.

According to a new report from Bluefield Research, the combined water and sewer bill for a typical U.S. household has increased by 56% since 2012, or 4.2% annually.

The report is Bluefield’s U.S. Municipal Water & Sewer: Annual Utility Rate Index, 2023, an annual report that examines the water and sewer rates for 50 of the largest cities that provide services to 15% of the U.S. population. The report notes that across 50 of the largest U.S. metropolitan areas, average monthly household water bills increased to $50.61, and monthly sewer bills reached $71.16, based on average household water consumption.

Two cities demonstrating the largest rate increases from 2022–2023 were El Paso, Texas and San Jose, California. El Paso residents recorded a 17% increase in their water and sewer rates to secure future water supplies. In San Jose, California, residents saw an 11% increase due to the utilities’ rising costs for purchased water, drought conditions, and planned infrastructure projects. Among the 50 cities analyzed, eight reported rate declines in 2023.

“While the reasons for rate increases vary city by city, many have been in response to rising costs (i.e., inflation, labor) for ongoing system operations and maintenance, along with large capital investments to address aging infrastructure,” noted Charlie Suse, senior analyst at Bluefield Research. “Across the board, higher costs for labor, chemicals, and materials have been among the most cited reasons for water utility rate increases.”

Household Water and Sewer Bills for 50 U.S. Cities, 2012-2023. Source: Bluefield Research.

At a local level, the report notes, the differences become more apparent. According to Bluefield, monthly water bills range from a low of $19.51 in San Antonio, Texas, to a high of $114.25 in San Francisco, California. For sewer bills, Bluefield reports that monthly charges range from a low of $11.24 in Long Beach, California, to a high of $170.40 in Seattle, Washington. 

Bluefield’s analysis highlights new programs targeting drought resiliency in California, as well as debt services for capital programs in Detroit, Michigan and Washington, D.C., that are driving up rates in the near term. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the end of rate relief programs, cities like Riverside, California, have implemented and resumed new rate schedules after several years of postponements.

“Utilities in the Western U.S. rely more heavily on seasonal rate structures to help stabilize revenues and encourage conservation, particularly in Los Angeles, California and Phoenix, Arizona,” said Suse. “In 2023, households in the Northeast faced the highest average combined water and sewer bills, with an average combined monthly bill of $144.94. This is in part due to the scale of operations and maintenance (O&M) and energy prices.”

Average water and sewer charges by region. Values based on variable regional consumption rates. Source: Bluefield Research.

The report states that overall, the financial dynamics of water utilities have been changing. The combination of rising capital expenditure (CAPEX), surging operating expenditure (OPEX), and a decrease in federal spending for water infrastructure have created challenges for water utilities. To address aging infrastructure and escalating financial requirements, many utilities have had to make implement rate increases.

Still, amid rising household water and sewer rates, affordability looms large for all utilities and city managers. In many cases, utilities have implemented assistance programs for low-income or elderly resident households, including the cities of Albuquerque, Austin, Seattle, Omaha, Columbus and Memphis.

This is the eighth consecutive year Bluefield has engaged in a comprehensive analysis of water and sewer rates for 50 of the largest cities that provide services to 15% of the U.S. population.

>>> This report has been updated from a previous version that incorrectly cited the billing frequency in Portland, Oregon, as monthly instead of quarterly, leading to an incorrect figure for average monthly water bill.

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