Sign up for the Guardian Today US newsletter
The magnitude of America’s water affordability crisis has been laid bare by shocking new data from California where debt owed on water bills has hit $1bn and one in every eight households is currently in arrears.
A survey by the state water board found at least 1.6m households are behind on water bill payments. The average debt is $500, but 155,000 or so households are in real trouble, owing more than $1,000 each and accounting for half the total debt.
California is America’s most populous state and even before the pandemic, a third of residents, about 13m people, lived in poverty.
Water debt – like other poverty indicators – is not evenly distributed.
Households in predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods are more likely to be in arrears, and have disproportionately larger debts. Racial inequalities in California’s water debt persist even after adjusting for income and housing, the survey found. The highest concentration of arrears is in southern California, particularly in Los Angeles – one of the cities hardest hit by Covid-19 deaths and the economic fallout.
The pandemic did not create California’s water affordability crisis, but the debt has ballooned since the governor, Gavin Newsom, ordered a moratorium on water shutoffs for unpaid bills last April, as part of the state’s public health measures to curtail the spread of Covid-19, which is highly contagious.
Low-income households hit hard by the pandemic are likely prioritizing food, medication, and other basic necessities over paying their water bill.
Covid cases and deaths are once again surging in California – and most other states – but things could be even worse without the moratorium on water shutoffs.
In 2019, at least half a million California residents had their taps turned off after falling behind in bill payments, according to figures provided by the water board. Gaps in the data mean the actual number of people denied access to water was almost certainly much higher.
The moratorium will continue until Newsom declares an end to the Covid emergency, but there’s currently no provision for how or when the accumulating debts will be paid.
Advocates fear a wave of mass shutoffs after the moratorium expires.
“These shocking and sobering statistics contain a simple message: if we do not act, California will soon experience a drinking water catastrophe of devastating proportions. The painful truth is the very same communities already hit the hardest by the pandemic will also face the worst of the water shutoffs crisis,” said Jonathan Nelson, the policy director for the California-based Community Water Center.
It’s not just residents who are struggling. Water utilities are struggling to stay afloat as they rely on customer revenue to cover operation and maintenance costs.
The water board on Tuesday warned that 25 small and medium sized water utilities – about 1% of the total number – could go under within 180 days without government financial intervention.
“Some utilities are deferring capital investments and maintenance; others are drawing down their reserve funds … smaller water systems are financially vulnerable and may require assistance to maintain operations within the next six months,” said Darrin Polhemus, the deputy director of the division of drinking water at the State Water Board.
Covid has underlined the importance of access to clean water, but the affordability crisis has been brewing for the past decade.
A landmark national investigation by the Guardian last year found millions of Americans are struggling to afford running water due to rapidly rising bills and inadequate financial assistance.
Analysis of 12 US cities – including San Diego and San Jose in California – found the combined price of water and sewage increased by an average of 80% between 2010 and 2018, with more than two-fifths of residents in some cities living in neighborhoods with unaffordable bills.
The rising cost of water is directly linked to national politics.
Federal funding for water systems has fallen by 77% in real terms since its peak in 1977 – leaving local utilities to raise the money that is needed through bill hikes in order to upgrade ageing infrastructure, comply with safety standards for legacy and emerging contaminants like PFAS, lead and nitrates, and adapt to extreme weather conditions linked to the climate crisis.
The cost burden has fallen disproportionately on low-income households, as benefits and wages have stagnated over the past decade. Evidence suggests communities of color are disproportionately affected by punitive measures by utilities such as shutoffs and foreclosures linked to water debt.
California has often been ahead of the curve on water issues.
In 2012, state lawmakers passed the Human Right to Water Act, establishing the right to safe, clean, affordable and accessible water adequate for human consumption, cooking and sanitary purposes.
Since then some progress has been made, but water is increasingly scarce as California’s snowpack shrinks due to rising temperatures and droughts have become more frequent and severe. Meanwhile, more than a million Californians are still exposed to unsafe drinking water, and assistance for low-income households is patchy and insufficient.
Emergency help is on its way.
The latest federal aid package included $638m for states to help struggling households pay water bills, though emerging statewide debt data suggests this will barely make a dent in the problem. In Virginia, more than half a million households are behind on water bills, with municipal utilities owed at least $88m in arrears.
In his proposed budget, Newsom has allocated $600 a month for low-income families struggling to pay rent and other expenses.
But emergency measures will not be enough. A growing number of state and federal lawmakers and advocates are pushing for well-funded structural reforms to ensure safe, clean and affordable water for every American.
“Access to water is a fundamental right of all Californians, regardless of their income level or economic status. Yet many people are being denied this essential service, in part because of rising water rates but also because the pandemic has left so many people unemployed,” said the Democratic state senator Bill Dodd.
Environmental justice campaigners are backing two new bills introduced by Dodd on Tuesday that would create an income-based assistance program long recommended by the water board, limit shutoffs and offer bridge loans to small utilities.
Nelson added: “Even before the pandemic, we lived in a country divided between those that have safe and affordable water and those that don’t. Access to safe and affordable water is more than a public health threat – it is a matter of basic racial justice. There can be no equitable recovery in a society that allows for mass water shutoffs.”