Survey says: COVID-19 impacts on drinking water systems still unknown

July 4, 2020
by Lois Henry
Lois Henry

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More than four months into the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s hard to say exactly what the fallout has been for drinking water utilities.

Predictions were dire shortly after Gov. Newsom ordered a moratorium on water shutoffs for non-payment back in early April.

Would there be an avalanche of non payers? If so, how long would water systems, particularly small, disadvantaged systems, be able to hold out before they couldn’t pay for water treatment? Energy? Repairs? Insurance?

Multiple groups geared up to petition the state Legislature and Congress for relief.

But what has the actual impact been?

So far, the data are mixed to nonexistent.

“It’s still very much an open question,” said Max Gomberg, a staffer with the State Water Resources Control Board.

The Water Board launched a survey of all 2,900 drinking water systems in California on June 1.

As of July 2, it had only received 56 responses, Gomberg said.

And that’s after the state reached out to the California Association of Mutual Water Companies, Association of California Water Agencies and others to encourage their members to answer the survey.

Fifty-six is a woefully small respondent group from which to try and draw any conclusions, Gomberg agreed.

“So far, there is no overall trend,” he said.

The state put out the survey after a handful of reports came in about some systems that were unable to make payroll and had sought assistance from the state Office of Emergency Services.

The Water Board hoped the survey would alert the state before other systems started to topple.

And it wanted to gather information to aid the push for Congressional assistance.

“There’ve just been a few small surveys so far, nationwide. But those were done early on and  took a small number of responses and made projections, which may or may not end up being accurate,” Gomberg said. “We wanted to get actual data.”

One of those early surveys was done by the Rural Assistance Community Partnership which surveyed very small systems nationwide in May about the impacts of nonpayment.

That survey garnered 1,137 responses from 49 states and Puerto Rico.

It found that the median monthly revenue loss per system was $4,685, which, when extrapolated, could mean small systems were losing $3.6 to $5.58 billion a month.

That’s operations and maintenance money, noted Rural Assistance Executive Director Nathan Ohle.

Government aid typically only goes to one-time projects, such as drilling a well.

But project funding won’t address the impacts of COVID-19, Ohle said.

“That’s something policy makers need to keep in mind.”

The state Water Boards survey had been intended to put some flesh on the bones of that and other similar surveys.

“Now that we’ve been in this a few months, we wanted to know what the actual billing numbers are showing,” California Water Board’s Gomberg said.

Though the low response level doesn’t allow for widespread conclusions, Gomberg said the responses were illuminating in other ways.

The survey asked systems to identify the percent revenue loss they’re seeing.

Most were in the 0% to 10% range, Gomberg said.

That’s good but, again, that’s only 56 systems out of thousands.

Gomberg theorized that most systems may not be seeing significant revenue drops because of the various forms of assistance that were passed early in the pandemic.

“If anything can be drawn from this survey, it may be that there was enough of a cushion provided by the state and federal government that revenue didn’t drop off a cliff,” Gomberg said.

He said the survey would remain open indefinitely for other systems and the state would ask the 56 initial respondents for monthly updates to keep track of any revenue declines.

Adan Ortega, Executive Director of the California Association of Mutual Water Companies, hoped more systems would fill out the survey.

“You can’t cry hardship and then not provide information to the elected officials who are critical for obtaining funding so they can understand the trends,” he said.

CalMutuals hasn’t done its own survey but anecdotally, Ortega said he’s hearing that smaller systems are actually faring better than larger water companies.

That could be because many are volunteer run.

Ortega represents the city of Fullerton on the Metropolitan Water District Board.

“Our utility non payments are ranging from 20% to 30%,” he said. “That’s a big hit.”

Beyond that, he’s hearing Community Services Districts in the Southern California area are seeing a growing number of nonpayers.

“We’re beginning to get questions about when the governor’s order will end and if this goes on, it’s going to be a problem.”

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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