In summary

The governor and Legislature must maintain the moratorium on water shutoffs and secure funding for families who are struggling.

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By Tracy Quinn, Special to CalMatters

Tracy Quinn is director of California Urban Water Policy at the Natural Resources Defense Council,

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Safe drinking water is a human right and essential during the COVID-19 crisis. And California must do more to ensure water service during concurrent health and economic emergencies. 

In April, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order placing a moratorium on water shutoffs and requiring reconnections for households disconnected after March 4. But months into a crisis, the state lacks data on the impact of the moratorium. 

Without data, there is no way to gauge the scale of accruing unpaid water bills and late fees for customers who have water service but cannot pay. But record unemployment means California should expect a tsunami of water shutoffs when the moratorium ends and bills come due.

On Aug. 18, the State Water Resources Control Board staff presented results of its voluntary survey on the impacts of COVID-19 on drinking water systems in California. Unfortunately, the survey did not reveal how many families remain without water, nor how much funding California must identify to address debt. Not only did the survey not ask these questions, only 238 of California’s 2,900 water agencies responded. 

The water board expressed disappointment and directed staff to propose ways to improve data collection on water access and affordability but did not commit to take action.  

Board members have a duty to prioritize health and provide support to small suppliers to reduce the burden of additional reporting.  Months into a health crisis, Californians need urgency from agencies tasked with ensuring safe, reliable and affordable water. At the board meeting in September, staff must recommend mandatory regular reporting and the board needs to be prepared to act.

The board must guarantee California can assist with a just economic recovery. California needs emergency funding for water utilities that serve disadvantaged communities disproportionately affected by COVID-19. State or federal funding could help customers, many now unemployed, repay water bills when the moratorium ends.  

In 2019, approximately 350,000 people had their water shutoff for non-payment. The lackluster response to the inadequate survey means we don’t know how many of these families are vulnerable to shutoffs at the end of the governor’s moratorium.

North Carolina required monthly reporting of shutoff and late payments during the pandemic. State leaders found at least 321,000 water and wastewater customer accounts past due at the end of June, with about two-thirds of them eligible for shutoff. California should collect similar data.

The California Public Utilities Commission gathers information from the state’s private investor-owned utilities, but private utilities represent only a fraction of all water suppliers. Without state leadership, environmental organizations resorted to Public Records Act requests to determine how many families were disconnected from service. It should not fall on organizations to do the government’s job.

In its mandatory data collection, North Carolina suppliers reported $57.7 million in arrears. Meanwhile, Michigan designated $25 million of federal stimulus funds for a relief program to help families maintain service. Other states have required waivers for late fees and mandated extended repayment plans. Why can’t California take similar steps?

The water board needs to collect data on unpaid water bills to help identify and allocate funding. The governor and Legislature must maintain the moratorium beyond the pandemic and secure funding for families who are struggling. NRDC joins the governor and Legislature in asking Congress to pass legislation directing additional COVID-19 relief to states. Every day that a family does not have access to water could be deadly. 

The governor, Legislature and water board must act now. The first step though, is collecting the necessary data, and the board has an opportunity to make this mandatory at its next meeting. The question is, is it bold enough to do so? 

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