COVID-19 relief includes money for water bill debt. Will it be enough?

January 12, 2021
by Lois Henry
Lois Henry

Relief bill

CLICK HERE to see the federal omnibus budget bill, including COVID-19 relief money.

Then scroll to page 1104 of the PDF to read the portion dealing with water bill debt.

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The COVID-19 relief bill passed last month includes $638 million to address the growing issue of water bill debt across the nation.

When the pandemic dug in last spring, many states, including California, issued moratoriums on household water shut offs for lack of payment.

That moratorium is still in place in California and water debt has been piling up, alarming advocates and state regulators concerned about the eventual impact on residents and the real times impacts on water companies.

Many advocate organizations that had been pleading with Congress to include water bill debt in new relief legislation were glad to see the $638 million, which may result in $60 million for California, according to Jonathan Nelson, Policy Director for Community Water Center.

But it may not be enough depending on how bad the situation is here, he said.
We will learn more about California’s water bill debt at the State Water Resources Control Board meeting on Jan. 19.

That’s when results from a survey of water companies delving into customer debt will be released, according to Max Gomberg, a manager with the Water Board who helped craft and conduct the survey.

As SJV Water reported back in October, the Water Board directed staff to redouble its efforts to survey a section of the state’s 3,000 water companies to find out how much customer debt is piling up and how the companies are doing financially.

Staff had tried over summer to gather some of that information.

But even with the help of the California Mutual Water Company Association, the state was only able to get 300 responses.

It was a woefully low response rate that didn’t give officials enough information to begin creating a response policy.

So, in October, Water Board directors asked staff to work with water systems and advocacy groups to  survey the 300 to 400 most fiscally vulnerable water systems and try to ascertain the debt load of those systems’ customers.

The survey was not made mandatory, which CalMutuals Executive Director Adan Ortega through was a mistake.

“If they want this survey answered, they have to make it mandatory,” he said in October.

Back in October, anecdotal information indicated that 35% to 50% of customers in some water systems had stopped paying their bills, according to Darrin Polhemus, Deputy Director of the Drinking Water Division.

SJV Water is an independent, nonprofit news site dedicated to covering water in the San Joaquin Valley. Get inside access to SJV Water by becoming a member.

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