A water crisis is growing in two U.S. cities, and it doesn't involve drought or flooding.
Thousands of residents in Detroit and Baltimore, where a significant number of residents live in poverty, are at risk for losing access to water, courtesy of unpaid bills. Local utilities in those cities, frustrated by millions in unpaid accounts, are cracking down by issuing warnings this spring that delinquent households are at risk for losing water.
The actions are prompting accusations of unfair treatment and raising questions about whether access to clean water is a human right, regardless of household income. In Baltimore, where more than 1,600 residents have had their water shutoff in the past few weeks, the Baltimore Sun found that none of the delinquent commercial properties had their water turned off.
In Detroit, community organizers gathered last weekend to discuss what they call a "deadly philosophy" that's leading to the "destruction of the commons."
"There's no excuse for the wealthiest country in the world to have citizens who have to live that way," Tiffani Ashley Bell, a co-founder of a charity called the Detroit Water Project, told CBS MoneyWatch. "I don't believe water should be free, but I don't think citizens should be subjected to going for months without running water."
The issue came to the forefront last summer, when thousands of poor Detroit residents lost access to water, although a local TV station WDIV found that big organizations and commercial enterprises such as Joe Louis Arena, home to the Detroit Red Wings, also were delinquent but didn't lose access to water.
Some of Bell's clients had gone for a year or so without access to water, she noted. Her organization matches up residents in Detroit and Baltimore with people who provide charitable donations to pay for their water bills, ensuring that their taps continue to work. So far, the charity has helped about 900 households regain access to water.
The people who require assistance are often older, disabled, sick, poor or single parents, Bell added. While Detroit has a payment program to help delinquent households get back into the good graces of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD), Bell noted that many poor families have problems keeping up with their bills because the utility requires a significant down payment -- up to 50 percent of their bill's balance. That can put them back financially and make it less likely they'll have the money for a second payment.
The DWSD says it has made progress, including lowering the number of potential shutoffs compared with 2014. In a statement issued last week, the utility said it has 20,000 households in shut-off status, half the 40,000 residential accounts that received shut-off notices a year earlier.
The department, which expected to shut off 1,000 households last week, said the technique is effective, given that 60 percent of customers that get shut off pay their accounts in full or enter a payment plan within 24 hours of the turn-off. The department began residential shutoffs for nonpayment on May 26, although it turns off water for delinquent commercial accounts and illegal residential accounts year-round, according to spokesman Gregory Eno.
Detroit's actions last year drew the attention of the U.N., whose Human Rights team worked on trying to understand why shutting off water was necessary. A representative told CBS News that it was a human rights violation and that the city should restore water to those unable to pay.
Of course, providing clean water to homes isn't free: Municipalities spend millions to operate their water and wastewater treatment plants, as well as to employ utility workers.
But advocates for families who have fallen behind on their bills say cities should have other methods for dealing with delinquencies, such as structuring payments based on income. Bell noted that no federal programs help poor residents pay for water, unlike other necessities such as heating, which is provided through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.
Bell said she doesn't see the problems in Detroit improving.
"We get at least 10 people a day from Detroit who apply" for assistance, she said. "Cities should promote basic public health. But when you have a city water department turning off the water, that negates all those ideas of public health."