Water Affordability in California

January 12, 2021

In 2019, prior to the pandemic, over 500,000 Californians have had their water shut off due to inability to pay. The current public health crisis has emphasized existing structural inequities, disproportionately impacting low-income and communities of color including access to water

In April 2020, California Governor Gavin Newsom issued an Executive Order banning water shutoffs statewide for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic state of emergency. However, the shut-off moratorium is a temporary measure. The issue of shut-offs has not gone away in the long-term and with each passing month, families are further behind on their water bills. A rising tide of household water debt for low-income families now threatens a tidal wave of mass water shutoffs in 2021. 

According to the January 2021 State Water Board’s statewide water debt survey, Californians are shouldering $1 billion in water debt affecting 1.6 million Californian households, with an average debt amount of $500 dollars per person. 155,000 households were found to already carry over $1,000 in debt. The survey also found that low-income communities of color had disproportionately high levels of water debt.

Current basic state-wide protection established by SB 998 (Dodd 2018) requires water systems to have a water shutoff policy, set caps on the cost of reconnection fees and late fees, and requires a basic level of annual reporting from water systems on the amount of shutoffs that occur each year. However, small water systems that serve 200 connections or less aren’t included in these protections. 

No state-wide low-income affordability program (LIRA) exists for water utilities (unlike electricity, gas, telecommunications, and cell-phones). In 2015, AB 401 (Dodd) passed, requiring the State Water Board to create a plan for a statewide water affordability program by 2018. It is now time for the CA Legislature and Governor to implement a low-income rate assistance program for water.

Clean Water Action and a broad coalition of water advocates and allies have come together to call for solutions to the water affordability crisis. An equitable recovery from the pandemic must include solutions for water access & affordability. Clean Water is advocating on the State & Federal level to ensure funding for water infrastructure and prevent a wave of mass water shutoffs and water debt for California families.

In April 2020, the Governor issued a water shut-off moratorium. The water shut-off moratorium has been extended to December 31, 2021, giving state agencies time to distribute the $1 Billion allocated in the State budget to address covid-related utility debt. Learn more about the Water and Wastewater Arrearages Payment Program here! Please report any shut-offs or issues with reconnection here. 

One of legislative priorities for this year is SB 222 - Water Low Income Rate Assistance Program (LIRA). We urge our State legislators to prioritize water affordability and the public health of all California by supporting SB 222 authored by Senator Bill Dodd.  

 

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