GUEST COMMENTARY: California’s water debt crisis needs a long-term fix

Commentary by Ileana Miranda, resident of San Jerardo in Monterey County and general manager of the San Jerardo Cooperative

From the gas pump to the grocery store, the cost of living in California–which was already a stretch for so many families–has gone through the roof lately. As if that weren’t enough, the LA Times reported this week that rents in California could soar 10% because of inflation. This is more difficult for those of us who have to pay $115 a month for our water bill.  It is a burden for those of us who see how our neighbors suffer, because they can’t afford to pay for a vital liquid and sometimes they have been cut off for non-payment. This is inhumane, California passed the Human Right 10 years ago and this is still happening.

Rates have risen so steeply that some families like mine are paying monthly more than $100 just to meet drinking, cooking, cleaning and other household needs. The million Californians living with toxic taps have to buy bottled water in addition to paying their monthly bills. 

Next week, lawmakers have a chance to provide a lifeline for low-income Californians by creating a water bill assistance program similar to what the state offers for energy, cell phones and internet. 

This legislation, Senate Bill 222, will build on the financial help the state already provided with this year’s “inflation relief” tax refund. It will also build on two emergency programs created to help Californians pay down water bills that piled up during the pandemic. 

California’s water affordability problem started way before COVID-19 and the current financial crisis, but it’s gotten worse over time, putting thousands of families at risk of shutoffs just as temperatures and infection rates are rising. We know hydration and handwashing save lives, but we still allow utilities to cut off water service to families simply for falling behind on their bills.

The state had paused water shutoffs earlier in the pandemic, but those protections were lifted in early 2022, and water utilities are starting to send out disconnection notices again. Imagine trying to pay down hundreds of dollars in water debt at a time when feeding your family is more expensive than ever.

A study from September 2021 estimated that 28% of California households had some overdue balance on their water bills, owing an average of $374. Many received help from temporary relief programs, but this long-standing problem needs a long-term fix.

After decades of organizing by communities across the state, a solution is within reach. Next week, lawmakers will have a chance to deliver on the human right to affordable water by voting for Senate Bill 222, creating a water bill assistance program that is accessible to every Californian at last. It’s a no-brainer. I urge our representatives to vote yes. 

 Ileana Miranda is a resident of San Jerardo in Monterey County. She is general manager of the San Jerardo Cooperative, a housing community built by and for farmworkers that her father-in-law helped to found. San Jerardo has had problems with water contamination from nearby farms as well as unaffordable water rates.

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