The Flint River flows through downtown in Flint, Mich., in December. For a time, this was the most expensive drinking water in the country. (Reuters/Rebecca Cook/Files)

By January of last year it was starting to become clear that something was wrong with the water in Flint, Mich. After nine months of drawing water from the Flint River, residents were complaining about odors and bad tastes. General Motors had stopped using the river water at its Flint plant over concerns about corrosion. State officials had quietly started shipping bottled water to state workers in the city.

The rest is history -- poisoned water, shocking levels of lead, a spike in Legionnaire's cases and other untold health effects that may not be fully understood for years.

And during it all, Flint residents were paying more for their water than just about anyone else in the country.

That last finding comes from a report issued Tuesday by Food & Water Watch, a nonprofit working to improve food and water quality in the United States. The group surveyed the 500 largest public and private water providers in the country. They found that in January 2015, the Flint water system charged more for its services than any other of the 500 water utilities in their survey.

In an attempt to resolve Flint's water crisis, officials want to remove and replace lead-ridden water pipes. Here's why this undertaking will be a challenge. (Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)

"People [in Flint] were paying the highest rates in the country for water that was toxic," said Mary Grant, a lead author on the report. "It's an indictment of running water systems like a business instead of a public service."

A typical Flint household could expect an annual water bill of $864 a year. That's more than twice as high as the state average. At the peak of the lead crisis Flint residents paid twice as much for water as people in New York City, more than three times as much as people in Detroit and seven times as much as Miami residents. Residential water in Flint was 10 times more expensive than water in Phoenix, Ariz., which is literally in the middle of a desert.


Flint is also one of the more economically challenged places in the country. The median annual household income is less than $25,000. But the water in the city cost "far above the threshold for what the United Nations considers affordable," according to Grant. "Water and sewer should not be more than three percent [of household income] to be affordable," Grant said. But water and sewer combined in Flint account for nearly seven percent of the typical household's income -- more than double the U.N. guideline.

Flint residents did get some relief from high water bills last summer, when a judge ruled that a 35 percent rate hike instituted in 2011 had to be rolled back. At the time, the city attorney said, "This will have a devastating financial impact."

And therein lies much of the problem. For several years, Flint had been operating the water utility primarily as a financial entity, rather than a public health utility. The situation there shows the consequences of "trying to run a utility like a business focused on the bottom line, instead of a public service for a public good," said Grant.

Even with the rate cut, Flint residents continue to be burdened with some of the most expensive water in the country. The city has already begun sending shut-off notices to residents who can't afford to pay for water that remains unsafe to drink.

More from Wonkblog:

Black poverty differs from white poverty

A poverty map where the South looks the best

How Flint, Ferguson and Baltimore are all connected