Updated Dec. 7
A statewide water shutoff moratorium has kept the tap on for Californians who haven’t been able to pay their water bill in the midst of the pandemic-driven economic crisis. But ratepayer debt has been accruing for months now, leading to revenue losses for water providers across the state.
Just how bad is the problem? California water regulators still are not sure.
Anecdotal reports suggest some water providers have seen revenue losses between 20% and 30%, with some reporting a 50% drop. Advocates say the crisis has pushed smaller systems that serve some of the state’s most vulnerable residents to the brink of survival, and threatens to leave many ratepayers with significant debt.
“Those water bills are going to come due,” said Jonathan Nelson, the policy director at the Community Water Center. “Not only is there no plan for what to do about that crisis of water debt and potential mass water shutoffs next year, but we don't even know the full scope of the problem.”
The State Water Resources Control Board regulates all public water systems in California, serving close to 85% of the state’s customers. The board hasn’t required the utilities under its purview to report specific data about how the pandemic has had an impact on their finances, nor has it tracked ratepayer debt. Initial efforts over the summer to collect some of that information from water providers through a voluntary survey fell short; of the approximately 7,500 public water systems in the state, only 10% replied to the survey.
Since June, the California Public Utilities Commission has been collecting data about the COVID-19-related financial impacts to investor-owned utilities. Those private companies provide water to about 15% of Californians. Many other states have required utilities report this kind of information from both public and private water providers, too.
North Carolina is one of the states that collects those details from its utilities. One analysis of their data found ratepayers have accrued between $61.7 million and $81.5 million in debt thanks to unpaid water bills.
A nationwide study funded by the American Water Works Association found that water utilities could face a financial impact of $13.9 billion over the course of a year, because of pandemic-driven shifts in revenue. A survey from the U.S. Census Bureau found that about a third of Californians are struggling to cover household expenses like water bills during the pandemic.
A coalition of California agencies sent a letter to Congress in May pleading for federal relief to address the problem.
“The situation is pretty dire,” said Tracy Quinn, the director of California Urban Water Policy at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “We need that information here in California to know: what are we looking at and what kind of solutions should we be putting in place now?”
Experts warn the situation could very well be worse for small water systems. About 2,400 of California’s roughly 2,900 community drinking water providers are considered small, meaning they serve fewer than 3,300 customers. Those systems tend to serve high rates of low-income people who have been among the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, and may be less likely to be able to keep paying their water bills.
“That's where we would expect to see this,” said Laurel Firestone, who serves on the State Water Resources Control Board. “We know the impact of this both on households, and on the water system, is really severe.”
At its Oct. 6 board meeting, the State Water Resources Control Board announced a new data collection effort to provide some answers to basic questions about how water systems and ratepayers are faring. The board plans to complete a survey of water systems across California over the phone to get a sense of the scope of the problem. They hope to have that done by the end of the year.
Nelson of the Community Water Center, and other advocates, hope to use that data to work towards solutions before the moratorium, which lasts as long as the state of emergency, lifts.
“What we don't want to see happen is to have the statewide state of emergency end and then people get water bills that they can't pay,” Nelson said.
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the number of public water systems in California. There are 7,500 in the state.
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