Writing Catalog

Alex Pesek

Grade: 10

University School - Hunting Valley

Instructor: Scott Boehnen

An Unnecessary Thirst: The Water Affordability Crisis in Cleveland

Critical Essay

An Unnecessary Thirst: The Water Affordability Crisis in Cleveland

Cleveland was considered the most miserable city in the United States of America in 2010. One of the main reasons for this national title was the high unemployment rate, and the high level of poverty (Reaney). However, an unnoticed source of misery for poor Clevelanders is the high cost of a basic necessity, drinking water. Cleveland having these high poverty rates means that people can't afford the city's water; not because it's more expensive than other cities, but because people living in Cleveland have a lower income than other big cities in the United States. This issue of water affordability is both social and economic. For example, Robin Turner, a resident of Cleveland, had received multiple disconnection notices for her gas and electric utilities (Morris, "Clevelanders Struggle"). Turner is a mental health specialist who has attempted to get 'extra help' on paying her utility bills, but the process is pervasive. Turner was stuck in a loophole of waiting an unnecessary amount of time for her appointment with PIPP (Percentage of Income Payment Plan) to be scheduled; when the appointment was designed, the wait was over a month before they could see her (Morris, "Clevelanders Struggle"). Turner isn't the only Clevelander stuck with this water affordability crisis. Around 93,000 people like Turner are struggling to pay a utility bill that has been stacked up for an extensive amount of time: a month or longer. This number represents 1 of every 5 Cleveland water customer that is behind on accounts (Morris, "One in Every Five Cleveland Water Accounts Fall behind as Shutoffs Resume"). To fix this issue in Cleveland, multiple steps need to be taken, but first, the water affordability crisis needs to be seen as a problem. Being statistically a poorer city, Cleveland needs solutions to this crisis. Water is expensive because it requires both transportation and alteration to become potable. This expense cannot be addressed, but the income inequality experienced by water customers can be addressed. Steps can be taken to lessen this water affordability crisis, such as adopting new programs for lower-income people who cannot afford their water bills.

Cleveland being such an old city has numerous lead pipes, causing the city to go through extra steps to rid the water of lead. Cleveland uses more money to clean the water, ultimately causing the water prices in the city to rise. In the Cleveland area, an estimated 59-89% of water pipes are potentially made of lead (Davis). Although there have been efforts to replace the lead pipes, it's a small fraction of all the pipes possibly made of lead in the city. Most people with lead pipes on their property tend to be people of lower income, continuing with the idea of income inequality with the cost of water. The people struggling to pay their utility bills can't afford the removal of lead pipes. They are occupied trying to pay the essential payments needed for their house. The process of making water potable is exceptionally lengthy. The first step taken by the City of Cleveland Water Service is carrying the water in from Lake Erie and removing debris. Then Cleveland puts the water through a rapid mix followed by flocculation; flocculation is the process of removing large clusters, or flocs, from the water (the process can happen spontaneously or with the help of chemical agents). Then sedimentation occurs, another tactic used to remove sediment from the water. Filtration and disinfection are the last two steps taken before the water distribution to Clevelanders ("Water Treatment"). These are the standard procedures taken, but Cleveland also needs to worry about the possibility of lead in the water. Cleveland has many copper pipes with a high amount of lead installed between 1982 and 1989. Due to these lead pipe issues, Cleveland must collect water samples from as many tier 1 water sites as possible ("Lead Awareness"). Cleveland goes through this procedure constantly to ensure clean, healthy drinking water. Unfortunately, this also raises the price of water. The people in this situation are struggling with a problem that most people would never think about, something most people take for granted. Having fresh water in your house is a gift, something many people in the Cleveland area can't say they have or something they may lose.

The income inequality in Cleveland is a huge cause of the water affordability issue. The water and sewer prices increased by 30% between 2012 and 2019 (Morris, (Almost 10% of Clevelanders Behind on Water"). Cleveland has a poverty rate of 29.3%, which is above the national average, causing families to be unable to afford the rising water prices. With this issue, many people have tried to talk to someone, but the inability to speak to someone who can help is a barrier to fixing this problem. Robin Turner says, "When you go and ask for help, the system is intentionally set up so that they take people through all these loopholes and nothing ever happens" the process needed to go through to get extra help with bills is extremely difficult. Much paperwork is required, and the system isn't fast replying to the people needing help (Morris, "Clevelanders Struggle"). Another resident, Janet Gill-Cooks, has tried to qualify for bill assistance. People unable to pay their utility bills have tried to apply for help, but the program is always busy. Turner and Cooks are only two out of the 93,000 people in Cleveland struggling to pay their water bills (Morris, "One in Every Five Cleveland Water Accounts Fall Behind as Shutoffs resume"). This situation continues to unfold with people of the lower class. People fall into an endless cycle of asking for help to ensure water inside their houses. The process is extensive, and almost impossible to get the assistance needed.

Cleveland's high poverty level has an extreme play in the large percentage of people unable to pay their water bills. It doesn't matter what city a resident happens to be in; all of them have people who are behind on water and utility bills. Philadelphia found a way to reduce stacked-up utility costs for low-income households, and Cleveland could follow them. Kevina Chapolini-Renwick, a Philadelphia resident, was behind on unpaid water bills. Renwick and her husband inherited their house in 2007 from her husband's parents. She received a notice on her door explaining that legal action might occur in 2021. Renwick had a lot going on in her life during the time of the notice. She spent many long trips to the hospital with her husband, and she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2021. Renwick tried everything possible not to lose her home. She attempted calling a state representative, who told her nothing could be done. Eventually, Renwick came to find a nonprofit organization called Community Legal Services, which was stationed in Philadelphia. Renwick called the program several times until she got a hold of someone. The Services told her about the Tiered Assistance Program (TAP). The TAP program locks water rates for people of low incomes to 2%-3% of their income, no matter their water use. Cleveland could use this successful system that had originated in Philadelphia. Cleveland already has a few programs that aid low-income families with their water bills, but only 1,600 Clevelanders are signed up for them (Morris, "A tale of two cities' water bills"); in contrast, 93,000 Clevelanders are at least one month behind on utility bills (Morris, "One in Every Five Cleveland Water Accounts fall behind as shutoffs resume"). The water affordability program has recently announced that it is expanding, allowing more people to apply (Morris, "A tale of two cities' water bills").

Early in the pandemic, Cleveland said they would help residents by temporarily stopping shutoffs of power and water. This shutoff mandate was lifted in December 2020, even though people continued to suffer from the pandemic. Many programs have been created nationwide to aid people with their utility bills, but many have been unsuccessful. One program has installed 'smart buoys' to collect data in Lake Erie; some data consists of the lake's temperature, wave height, and algae levels (ideastream public media, "Water Affordability Programs Help Tackle Rising Utility Costs"). All the programs currently provided to Cleveland residents are too difficult to receive the said aid. Cleveland's Water Department has developed a new program that offers a 40% discount on water charges. Applying for the program is significantly easier than that of other programs. To apply for the program, customers must live at the home address that applied for the program and must be below a total household income of 200% of federal poverty guidelines (City of Cleveland Water, "Ways to Save: Assistance Programs"). Two thousand twenty one poverty guidelines state that for a family of four, $26,500 is the poverty guideline (2021 Poverty Guidelines). Cleveland's average household income is $31,838, only about $5,000 above the poverty line (United States Census Bureau, "Median Household Income). This isn't the only program provided. Other programs have been made for all people at different stages of struggle. One is the LIHWAP (Low Income Household Water Assistance Program) which is specifically for people disconnected or facing disconnection from water. Customers with a household income below 175% of the federal poverty line are eligible for this program. LIHWAP provides a one-time benefit of $750 for water bills (City of Cleveland Water, "Ways to Save: Assistance Programs"). These programs are just two examples from the Cleveland Water Department's programs to help people of low income. The process of getting aid from these programs is hugely more uncomplicated than the process Turner struggled through.

One in every five Cleveland residents is behind on their water bills, which is roughly 73,000 people (Morris, "One in Every Five Cleveland Water Accounts Fall behind as Shutoffs Resume"). Seventy-three thousand people in a total area of 82.47 square miles cannot afford drinking water. Drinking water is something many people take for granted, something many people don't take the time to think about. Seventy-three thousand people are on the verge of losing this necessity; many have already lost it. Most people unable to pay their utility bills have been unable to find help due to the few programs having such a small following. Robin Turner knew this due to her multiple attempts to apply for utility bill aid. Janet Gill-Cooks also tried to get access to support. Turner and Cooks finally got the help they desperately needed, but that's only two Cleveland residents out of the 73,000 who still need help. With sustained action and programs like these, Cleveland can create a future in which its greatest asset, Lake Erie, can provide water for all, regardless of their income or background.