Priced out and shut off: Tackling water affordability

Priced out and shut off: Tackling water affordability
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Right now, Congress is debating needed investments in our water system decades in the making. While the Senate’s compromise bill passed earlier this month includes billions for lead pipe replacement and helping communities prepare for future drought and floods, the bill falls short of ensuring all families can turn their tap on and access safe, affordable water.

Infrastructure spending isn’t enough. We must pair new water spending with bill assistance to ensure the water flowing through our upgraded pipes serves all households in America.

This is especially true as the country faces another rise in COVID-19 cases. Safe and affordable water is the first line of defense against the spread of this deadly virus.

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Cities, states and utilities across the country paused water shutoffs last year to help slow the spread of illness. But those temporary protections are lifting, and the bipartisan infrastructure package overlooks a permanent program to help families keep water on — just as we do for other necessities like electricity and phone service. 

Even before the pandemic, researchers found that water service was unaffordable for over one-third of U.S. households. This includes essential workers, veterans, two-income families and more. That’s because the price has gone up exponentially. A Guardian news investigation of 12 U.S. cities found that water bills increased an average of 80 percent between 2010 and 2018.

While water for cleaning, handwashing, staying hydrated and flushing toilets is the first line of defense against disease, we still have not made it a priority to ensure universal access in this country. 

Some utilities are stepping up to help (both San Francisco Public Utilities and East Bay Municipal Utilities District have customer assistance programs), but most respond to late payments with water and sanitation shutoffs, home tax liens and hefty fines and fees for reinstatement. That leaves families facing impossible choices, like whether to pay rent, buy food or medication, or keep up with utility bills. 

The consequences don’t end with water shutoffs. People behind on water bills risk losing their homes. Alarmingly, families without water service could lose custody of their children.

Utilities large and small are hurting just like their customers. In order to keep the water flowing, we need the government to step up.

Studies suggest we need $8 billion annually to meet the current need. In California alone, the State Water Board estimates that people owe $1 billion in water debt, with 12 percent of households behind on payments, owing an average of $600 each.

While some COVID-19 emergency funds have been dedicated, we can’t rely on stopgap measures to fix a chronic problem.

This is a public health issue — and a matter of racial justice. Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other communities of color typically pay higher water rates, and face a greater shutoff risk.

But a solution is within our grasp if Congress passes a strong, permanent low-income water rate assistance program as a necessary complement to water infrastructure investments.

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Leaders from both parties understand the urgency of this issue. In May, Representatives John KatkoJohn Michael KatkoThe 9 Republicans who voted to hold Bannon in contempt of Congress House votes to hold Bannon in contempt of Congress Lawmakers advocate for establishment of standalone House and Senate cyber panels MORE and Lisa Blunt-Rochester introduced the bipartisan Low-Income Water Customer Assistance Program Act. House lawmakers included this program, with $8 billion in funding, in the INVEST in America Act that passed the House in July. But the water bill assistance proposal was not included in the Senate Bipartisan Infrastructure package.

The public support is there. A March 2021 poll found that 81 percent of voters support federal assistance for families struggling to pay their water bills. Now, it’s time for lawmakers to act.

Congress and the White House must ensure that infrastructure legislation is not completed without a package that includes a universal, permanent water bill assistance program. We can’t stop the spread of COVID-19 or rebuild our communities without water access for all.

Michael McAfee is president and CEO of PolicyLink, a national research and action institute focused on advancing racial and economic equity. Follow him on Twitter: @mikemcafee06

Susana De Anda is co-founder and executive director of the Community Water Center, a nonprofit environmental justice organization based in California’s San Joaquin Valley. Follow her on Twitter: @CWaterC