Saskatoon

Report says low-income earners in Regina, North Battleford struggle to pay water bills

A professor at the University of Regina says low-income earners in five Saskatchewan cities are struggling to pay their water bills.

U of R study shows low-income earners in 5 Saskatchewan cities struggle to pay water bills

A professor at the University of Regina says water in five Saskatchewan cities is too expensive for low income earners. (Tim Graham)

An assistant professor at the University of Regina says low-income people in five Saskatchewan cities are struggling to pay their water bills.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has set a benchmark that marks water as unaffordable if people are spending more than five per cent of their income to access it.

"In my research, I bumped into people in a few communities that were having an incredible difficulty paying for water infrastructure, and their residents were having trouble paying their water bills," said Jim Warren, who works in the department of sociology.

His report, which appeared in the magazine Western Canada Water, notes that in Regina, North Battleford, Swift Current, Prince Albert and Yorkton people pay more than five per cent of the average income of a two-person low-income household for water.

Warren studied water rates in 93 cities across the country and found roughly one-quarter of their water rates were found to be unaffordable for low-income households.

The situation appears to be worst on the prairies. Seven cities in Alberta were found to be unaffordable, along with five in Saskatchewan.

The expensive water costs in Saskatchewan are complicated by poor water sources. For example, Regina has to pump its water almost 70 kilometres from Buffalo Pound Lake, then treat it for algae.

"The communities I looked at on the prairies, it wasn't bad management or it wasn't the use of inappropriate pricing mechanisms," he said. "We've got bigger challenges than other communities."

Once the water is used and discharged, it has to be treated again to be safe for communities downstream.

"In other provinces like Victoria, for example, its rates are not excessive in terms of what they charge low-income people," he said. "They can do that because they're allowed to release essentially untreated effluent into the ocean."

While there isn't much prairie cities can do about their water sources, Warren would like to see the details of how cities bill for water. He says many municipalities combine other city services such as garbage pickup with water rates, making it difficult to gauge how much people are getting charged.

He also said cities such as Saskatoon charge a lower initial rate for basic water usage, which then spikes for households using more water to fill swimming pools or watering their lawns. 

Warren said he started studying water prices in reaction to work from other researchers that advocated raising water rates to promote conservation.

Out of the 93 cities ranked in the study, Regina's water was the third-most expensive in the country, at roughly $1,200 a year. 

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