Unpaid water bills a “pending disaster” the state is trying to head off

May 24, 2021
by Lois Henry
Lois Henry

Share This: 

If the state has any hope of heading off a looming “tidal wave” of residential water shut offs and bankrupt water systems it has to get a picture of current impacts, advocates urged.

Right now, the state doesn’t even have a blurry sketch.

Which is why the State Water Resources Control Board directed staff on Tuesday to begin a survey of California’s nearly 3,000 community water systems to ascertain two things: How water systems are doing financially; and how far behind water customers are on their bills because of COVID-19 job losses and illness.

The board stopped short of forcing water systems to report that information, however.

That could stymie data gathering.

“If they want this survey answered, they have to make it mandatory,” said Adan Ortega, Executive Director of the California Mutual Water Company Association.

Cal Mutuals was instrumental in getting about 300 responses to a previous voluntary financial survey by the Water Board conducted over the summer.

That’s 300 responses out of 3,000 community water systems surveyed.

“There was just a huge lack of response,” Ortega said of last summer’s survey. “ We will work with our members to answer the new survey. But if it isn’t mandatory, I’m pessimistic other water systems will respond.”

Ortega echoed the concerns of a host of community advocacy groups that urged the board on Tuesday to require financial reporting.

“The Water Board heard today from frontline communities who urged proactive action on the threat of mass water shutoffs — a crisis that could occur by next year due to unpayable household water debt once the statewide water shut off moratorium expires,” Jonathan Nelson, Policy Director for Community Water Center wrote in a statement.

The moratorium was put in place last April by Gov. Newsom as part of the COVID-19 pandemic response.

On Tuesday, the Water Board directed staff to work with water systems and advocacy groups to craft a survey of the 300 to 400 most fiscally vulnerable water systems and try to ascertain the debt load of those systems’ customers.

They hoped to get the survey underway in the next two months with data coming back by the end of the year.

Anecdotal information indicates that 35% to 50% of customers in some water systems have stopped paying their bills, according to Darrin Polhemus, Deputy Director of the Drinking Water Division.

“It’s very distressing,” he told the board. “Water systems can’t continue operating for long under those conditions. And these aren’t small systems we’re hearing about.”

But anecdotal information isn’t enough.

The Water Board needs robust data to understand the scope of the problem and how it’s evolving, said Polhemus, who called the situation a “pending disaster.”

This survey will be much more specific and encompassing than the one last summer.

Last summer’s survey asked systems for ranges of revenue impacts and nothing about pending household debt, according to Max Gomberg, a Water Board staff member who conducted the past survey.

“We need to know if people owe in the hundreds or thousands of accumulated debt on water bills,” he said. “And whether a water system is likely to reach bankruptcy in one to three months or nine to 12 months. That’s critical information to try and figure out what kinds of assistance to provide.”

But it can’t be done without cooperation from water systems.

He said he heard water systems were hesitant to provide such information for a variety of reasons: They didn’t feel there was a clear explanation of how the data would be used; they feared rating agencies might use it to downgrade some systems; and just a general distrust of the California state government.

How this new survey effort will get past those hurdles remains to be seen.

Ortega said it’s in water systems’ interest to provide the data.

“The state needs this information to make the case for emergency funding and resources,” he said. “And the fact is legislators are calling the Water Board looking for this information all the time. If the Water Board can’t get it voluntarily, the chances increase that it will become mandatory.

“By not answering these voluntary surveys, systems may be inviting the very thing they’re trying to avoid.”

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.


Receive the latest news

Subscribe To Our Weekly Newsletter & Get Email Notifications

Enter your email address to receive INSTANT ALERTS of new articles and to be added to SJV Water’s WEEKLY NEWSLETTER