Guest commentary by Danielle Blacet-Hyden, deputy executive director of the California Municipal Utilities Association (CMUA):
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to worsen, it’s more important than ever that all Californians have reliable access to clean, safe water. At the most basic level, our health depends on it: water is essential for the handwashing and cleaning that helps eliminate the virus. Water also is indispensable for our food supply, jobs and economy.
Unfortunately, water service providers have not been spared from the pandemic’s financial impacts. They need financial resources from the state and federal government to support California customers in need and to ensure the water keeps flowing.
Remote work, social distancing requirements and quarantined employees mean that more staff resources — and more money — are required right now to operate water treatment plants and other critical facilities. At the same time, many water agencies are collecting less revenue than before the pandemic because some households are struggling to pay their bills.
An executive order Governor Newsom issued in April, which remains in effect, has put further financial strain on the state’s water agencies. The order enacted a moratorium on water service shutoffs for non-payment. In addition to those who are unable to pay their bill, some customers have simply chosen not to pay even though they have the money to do so because of the moratorium. The moratorium’s impact is especially magnified for the small- and medium-size agencies that do not have sufficient resources or financial reserves to weather the COVID emergency and the associated revenue loss.
The State Water Resources Control Board recently asked water systems about some of these COVID-19 impacts, in particular the extent of customers’ debt. The data is expected to show a substantial number of Californians are behind on their water bills, some by many months. Water agencies will be hard-pressed to recoup the losses, even when the pandemic is over.
Understandably, customers who are behind on their bills are concerned about what will happen when California lifts the shutoff moratorium. Customer debt may be high. Nevertheless, customers and policymakers should know that this will not necessarily result in customers’ water being shut off.
Whether it’s because of the global pandemic, a job loss or simply due to a customer’s financial struggles, California’s water agencies shut off service only when other options are exhausted. Water agencies go to great lengths to work with their customers to avoid discontinuation of water service by offering payment plans, deferrals or forgiveness of late fees and, when feasible, low-income rate assistance programs. In addition, Senate Bill 998, legislation California passed in 2018, adds further safeguards for eligible customers by preventing discontinuation of water service so long as they communicate and work with their water agency.
More financial assistance for water agencies and their customers is still needed, especially as the pandemic marches on. Funding would go a long way toward helping households get back on their feet and accelerating the state’s economic recovery. It would also protect California’s long-range environmental goals: When a water agency is forced to dip into its use-restricted reserves to cover lost revenue, it must shelve or delay other necessary initiatives, such as projects that support climate change adaptation or modernize infrastructure. It also could force lower credit ratings and higher borrowing costs, which put upward pressure on customer rates. Water agencies shouldn’t be expected to absolve customer debt without support from both the state and federal government.
Amid these unprecedented times and challenges, water agencies remain dedicated to serving customers now and in the future. Right now, water agencies and their customers could use a helping hand.
Danielle Blacet-Hyden is the deputy executive director of the California Municipal Utilities Association (CMUA), firstname.lastname@example.org.