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Washington Department of Ecology has issued a new permit to control nitrogen at 58 treatment plants, including Bremerton’s Westside Wastewater Treatment Plant. Ecology says the upgrades could increase sewer utility fees. Photo: Washington Department of Ecology

Wastewater fee study reveals hardship for low-income households

Low-income households may need financial help to address the impact of rising wastewater bills, according to a study of current and projected sewage treatment costs published last month by the Puget Sound Institute.

The study was initiated in support of the Marine Water Quality Implementation Strategy, a state and federal recovery plan addressing water pollution in Puget Sound. Since 2018, concerns have been rising about the potential ecological impacts from treated sewage flowing into the waterway. State regulators are calling for improvements to wastewater treatment plants that could increase utility rates, raising questions about affordability and prompting a search for strategies to cover the costs.

The proposed upgrades are meant to decrease the amount of nitrogen in wastewater that flows into Puget Sound. Excess nitrogen, also known as a nutrient, can feed algal blooms and deplete the water of oxygen (read more about the impacts of nutrient pollution on the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound). Regulators and utilities project that the costs of these upgrades could be transferred to ratepayers.

The study, conducted by researchers at the Puget Sound Institute, the ECO Resource Group, and Western Washington University, looked at current sewer bills for 80 sewer utilities in the Puget Sound region. It found that residents earning a utility service area’s median household income mostly did not experience affordability concerns, with fees generally amounting to less than 2% of their total income. However, households with the lower 20% of earners typically paid an average of 4.38% of their income in sewer bills, with some paying as high as 10%. (Figures are based on 2022 rates.)

In comparison, most U.S. households spent an average of 10.3% of their disposable income on food, according to the US Economic Research Service, a division of the US Department of Agriculture.

“What we found was that sewer bills take up a surprisingly large portion of household budgets for about 20% of the households in the region,” said Aimee Kinney, a researcher at the Puget Sound Institute and one of the leaders of the study. 

Cost of sewer service as a percentage of household income for 80 utilities. Costs are based on 2022 rates. LQI stands for “Lowest Quintile Income.” MHI stands for “Median Household Income.” Source: Puget Sound Institute.

Kinney said some of these already financially stretched ratepayers may have difficulty paying their bills if projected utility rate increases go into place. Based on estimates from the Washington State Department of Ecology, costs for lower income households could jump to an average of between 5.4% and 6.5% of total household income. Households with median incomes would also be stressed by the higher costs, with half of households paying more than 2% of their income on sewer bills. 

Current and estimated nutrient adjusted cost of sewer service as a percentage of lowest quintile income (LQI) for 80 utilities. Source: Puget Sound Institute.

According to the Washington Administrative Code, sewer fees are considered a “moderate hardship” when they are between 2% and 3% of an area’s median household income. “Elevated hardship” is measured at between 3% and 5%, and “severe hardship” occurs when levels are above 5%. The city of Seattle, which makes up part of the study, consistently has some of the highest water utility costs in national surveys, while stormwater utility fees, another component of total water service costs, are also relatively high in the Puget Sound region based on a recently published analysis.

Current monthly sewer bills in the Puget Sound region range from $27 to $161, according to the study. Those bills could increase to $44 to $196 based on estimates from the Washington State Department of Ecology when considering proposed wastewater treatment plant upgrades. 

Kinney says policymakers should look at ways to fund upgrades to wastewater treatment plants with lower income households in mind. The report offers several recommendations, including a call for additional funding from federal and state funding sources, changes to qualification criteria for state hardship grants and loans, and a regional low-income assistance program targeting households with the greatest needs. 

“Obviously, we want to meet our water quality goals,” said Kinney. “But we want to do it in a way that does not undermine other regional priorities like directing growth into urban areas and affordable housing. There are ways to pay for these upgrades that are potentially more and less equitable. How can we develop a funding strategy that supports all those priorities instead of one over the other?”

The report was prepared by Susan Burke of the ECO Resource Group and Western Washington University, Aimee Kinney and Kevin Bogue of the Puget Sound Institute, and Audrey Barber and Nate Jo of Western Washington University. The study was funded by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Read the full report.

Watch a video presentation about the study.

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