CALIFORNIA, USA — This story was originally published by CalMatters.
María Dolores Díaz sighs when she opens her water bill every month because she knows what she’ll see: another bill that she’ll struggle to pay.
Diaz looks at the envelope and doesn’t want to open it because she wonders: How much, this time? “Ya nomás miro la carta y ‘aí ya no lo quiero abrir!’ Porque yo digo ‘¿ahora cuánto?’”
California’s water affordability crisis has been simmering for years as water rate increases have outpaced inflation, rising 45% between 2007 and 2015 alone. By September 2021, nearly 650,000 residential and 46,000 business accounts owed more than $315 million in unpaid water and wastewater bills.
Latino and Black communities have been hit the hardest, with higher average debt. About half a million account holders had their water shut off for unpaid bills in 2019, according to state data.
California lawmakers voted overwhelmingly Monday and Tuesday to offer assistance: A bill that creates a new state program to help low-income Californians like Díaz pay their water and sewage bills is now expected to be sent to Gov. Gavin Newsom for his signature.
The program would be the only one of its kind in the country, said Greg Pierce, director of UCLA’s Human Right to Water Solutions Lab, who has consulted on water affordability for state regulators. “A program of this scale, run by the state or the feds — this would be unique,” he said.
Many of the details remain unknown — there is no information on how many low-income Californians are eligible for water rate assistance or how much they would receive. Renters and others in multifamily buildings with no individual water meters won’t be included.
And a major hurdle remains — funding. No money has been budgeted yet for the program as final budget negotiations continue, which could delay its start date until money materializes.
Last year a Department of Finance analysis reported that administrative costs for a $100 million assistance program would reach $1.9 million the first year and $1.5 million the next year. But the bill has changed multiple times since then so the costs will differ.
In the early days of the pandemic, Newsom ordered water systems to stop shutting off water for unpaid bills, but the moratorium expired at the end of 2021. Now Californians who cannot pay their bills once again risk losing their water supply.
Without the newly approved program, “people are seriously going to have to decide between how much they’re going to spend on food, rent and other items, along with their water bill,” said Sen. Bill Dodd, a Democrat from Napa who authored SB-222. “The problem is not going away.”
‘The problem is not going away’
Diaz is a 69-year-old widowed grandmother who lives in Cantua Creek, a small island of single-story houses amid Fresno County’s sea of agriculture. Many residents of this largely Latino community work in nearby fields, and nearly half live in poverty.
For Díaz, the crisis boiled over this spring. Faced with thousands of dollars in bills for an unexpected dental procedure, she fell behind on her utility payments. Díaz said she is careful with her money, and with her water: A bucket in her shower and bowls in her sinks collect any extra she can pour on her carefully tended plants. Only a small patch of grass remains in her yard, and she runs laundry every two weeks.
But June’s monthly $187 invoice — combining water, sewage, trash collection and street lights — brought the total she owed to $604. Fresno County, which runs the small Cantua Creek water system, sent her a 15-day notice: Start paying back her bills or her water would be shut off.
Christopher Bump, principal analyst with Fresno County’s Department of Public Works and Planning said the notice is just a warning, and that as of mid-August, water shutoffs have not resumed. Customers owe the tiny district about $28,000 in past due bills for water, sewer, trash collection and street lights, Bump said.
Nevertheless, the notice worries Díaz — and she doesn’t even drink the water: The system repeatedly violates safety standards for contaminants produced by disinfection that can increase the risk of cancer and other health problems. The California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation provides residents with jugs of drinking water instead.
Díaz said she lives on a fixed income and relies on Social Security benefits. And she said when the expenses mount — from her insulin, pills and dentist — and she falls behind on her water bill, it’s traumatic. She said her neighbors suffer, too. “Es algo que, traumático, no solamente para mí, también para mis otros compañeros que aquí hemos trabajado en Cantua ahora nos quedamos a vivir,” she said.
The Legislature’s decision comes more than two years after California water regulators issued recommendations for assistance, stemming from another Dodd bill that prompted a statewide study of water debt.
The Senate bill cleared its penultimate hurdle this week with 52 Assembly votes in support and 13 against.
Assemblymember Kelly Seyarto, a Republican from Murrieta, was one of the legislators who voted against the bill and spoke up in opposition.
“The state wants to create a one-size-fits-all for all of California, when we have hundreds of local agencies who have districts that are unique to their areas,” he said. “I prefer that this stay in the local arena.”
Many water agencies are opposed
The bill is widely supported by environmental justice advocates, including bill sponsor Community Water Center, a safe drinking water advocacy group. But it divides water providers.
Among its supporters are larger investor-owned utilities — the massive water companies that together supply 6 million Californians and already offer their own subsidies to help low-income residents pay their bills.
But the Association of California Water Agencies, which represents more than 450 public water agencies across California, opposed the bill, raising concerns that the way the program divided up state and local responsibilities would waste money.
Many local water systems are operating with debt of their own: The tiny Cantua Creek system, for instance, was operating about $40,000 in the negative in mid-August, Bump said.
Scott Taylor, general manager of the Lamont Public Utility District just south of Bakersfield, said low-income rate assistance is a good idea, but it must be “user friendly” for water systems like his that serve disadvantaged communities.
Though he credited state water regulators with more assistance lately, he said, in his experience, “Trying to get the money is a friggin’ nightmare.”
Both the state and federal governments have taken aim at pandemic-era debt. Last year the state allocated $985 million in federal funding to cover water and wastewater arrearages. The State Water Resources Control Board’s program ultimately paid nearly $260 million to drinking water systems serving roughly 80% of the state’s population to cover debts accrued during the first 15 months of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Top recipients included the massive Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, California Water Service in Commerce and the East Bay Municipal Utilities District, according to water board spokesperson Blair Robertson.
Another program, the federal Low Income Household Water Assistance Program, administered by the state, received $316 million in federal funds to help Californians pay past-due water and sewage bills.
Though water systems serving about half of Californians offer some kind of rate assistance, “most of these existing programs have low levels of enrollment and limited financial resources,” the water board reported in 2020. That leaves most low-income Californians served by public water systems falling through the cracks, with only 20% receiving any kind of rate assistance.
“Just like other utilities that offer assistance, water is an essential utility and it’s deserving as well of a ratepayer assistance program,” said Darrin Polhemus, deputy director for the State Water Resources Control Board in charge of the Division of Drinking Water.
Díaz said she hopes such a program eventually materializes, because it would be a huge relief for her and her neighbors.
“Aunque fuera no más un pago creo que a las personas les ayudaría bastante, deja uno a veces de comprar comida para pagar el agua,” she said. Even if it was just one payment, it would help: sometimes you stop buying food to be able to pay your water bill.
CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.
Watch more from ABC10: California lawmakers approve fast food workers bill