More than 76,000 households in the central San Joaquin Valley have water debt, meaning they are behind in payments to their water provider.

Thousands of households in Madera, Fresno, Tulare and Kings counties that fell behind on their water bills are at risk of a lien on their property and potential water shutoffs.

Administrators and legislators are working to strengthen a safety net for low-income residents with water debt, but proposed solutions may still leave some in financial crisis or without running water.

More than 76,000 customers in the central San Joaquin Valley were behind on their water bills owing a total debt of more than $15 million as of October, according to a fraction of the region’s community water systems that were surveyed by the State Water Board.

In reality, the collective debt is much larger.

Systems serving populations with higher rates of poverty and more people of color often have higher numbers of past-due accounts, according to State Water Board data compared with census data.

More households in west and southeast neighborhoods of Fresno have water debt than in other areas of the city, for example.

A drastic example of the disproportionate effects: 96% of households in the majority-Latino town of Mendota are behind on their water bill compared to 6% in Clovis, which is predominantly non-Latino and white.

In the city of Corcoran, where a third of all customers are in debt, “the delinquent accounts and debt have gone up by a factor of four” during the pandemic, administrators reported in a survey response. “The City does not know how the residents will be able to pay their bills down.”

“This is a crisis,” State Water Board member Laurel Firestone said in January when staff announced the estimation that Californians owed a total of $1 billion in water debt. “The inability to pay for water bills, the kind of debt we’re seeing in households, has real impacts.”

The Fresno Bee heard from valley residents with unpaid bills going back a month to several years. A Modesto woman who owes $900 asked, “Will I get shut off?”

A Clovis woman owing $1,000 said, “How am I going to pay this bill if I’m not working as many hours because of the pandemic?”

It can be scary. But there are certain protections, as well as proposed programs to help pay the debt down.

Water systems can’t legally shut off your water for nonpayment, for now

If you’re behind on the water bill, know that the water utility cannot legally turn off your water right now for debt accrued during the pandemic. If your water has been shut off since the pandemic started, call 1-844-903-2800.

Residential and essential businesses are protected by Gov. Gavin Newsom’s April executive order, suspending urban and community water systems’ authority to discontinue service for nonpayment.

The order remains in place until Newsom revokes it.

It prevented thousands of people from losing running water — a basic necessity for sanitation essential to preventing the spread of COVID-19 — and likely reduced infections and saved lives. A paper by the National Bureau of Economics Research estimates that bans on utility shutoffs like California’s reduce COVID-19 infections by 4.4% and mortality rates by 7.4%.

However, several water agencies have cited the moratorium on water shutoffs as the reason why customers haven’t paid their water bills.

Bakman Water Company, which provides water service to the Sunnyside neighborhood in East Fresno, reported in the survey that the overall accounts receivable balance was much higher in 2020 than 2019, and “we believe that the inability to complete shutoffs for nonpayment is the primary reason for this.”

In any other year, unpaid water bills led to some agencies shutting off running water after two months. It’s not uncommon.

In 2018, at least 196,800 single-family households had their water shut off at least once for nonpayment, impacting nearly 583,000 Californians, according to Pacific Institute. Another estimated 500,000 people were impacted by shutoffs in 2019, the State Water Board says.

Black households are twice as likely to be disconnected from water services as white households even though those households receive notices at similar rates, according to research by Pacific Institute.

A risk that hasn’t changed during the moratorium: Some water systems are authorized to place liens on properties with delinquent accounts and to collect unpaid bills with property taxes.

Madera Valley Water Company reported in the survey that it placed a lien on 70 delinquent accounts.

When the prohibition on water shutoffs is revoked

Once the moratorium on shutoffs is revoked, existing law passed in 2018 will require larger community water systems and city water departments to follow certain procedures before interrupting service for nonpayment.

Water providers must issue a written shutoff policy and an appeals process, and only proceed if the account has been delinquent for 60 days. The system is allowed to charge a reconnection fee of $50.

Sen. Bill Dodd (D-Napa) in January introduced legislation to extend those protections to all customers, including those of small community water systems.

His office noted that “even before the pandemic, water rates have been rising much faster than income.” Water rates increased statewide an average of 45% between 2007 and 2015.

Advocates like Michael Claiborne, an attorney with Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, hope that attention on running water will lead to larger policy changes to protect people from interruptions in water service.

“Water is needed for cooking, drinking, for washing your hands,” Claiborne said. “One thing that has been more clear now, is access to safe drinking water is important to health and preventing the spread of disease.”

Financial help may soon be available for low-income households

Federal and state programs already help low-income households pay for electricity and gas, but not generally for water and wastewater.

City utility departments usually have some kind of low-income assistance program that provides a small discount to people who meet certain income qualifications.

Smaller community water systems, often in rural areas or in mobile home parks, generally don’t have financial assistance programs because they don’t have funds to pull from because Proposition 218 prohibits the use of ratepayer funds to subsidize the fees of other ratepayers. So, any current financial assistance program has to be funded from sources outside the water department or water provider budget.

SB 222, also introduced by Dodd, would create a Low-Income Water Rate Assistance Fund to help low-income ratepayers pay for drinking and wastewater services, using state and federal funding sources.

In December, Congress passed an appropriations bill with a $900-billion relief package, including $683 million for utility bill assistance, nationwide.

California’s share will be about $62 million, which won’t do much against the state residents’ collective water debt of an estimated $1 billion.

President Joe Biden has stated plans for another $5 billion in relief nationwide, which could lead to additional emergency assistance.

City of Fresno says it will offer repayment plan for water bills

Fresno administrators indicated they plan to offer a repayment plan to those who have fallen behind on their bills during the pandemic, according to a state survey response.

The city reported nearly 35,000 households in Fresno were delinquent in that last billing cycle, owing a total of $9.3 million. That’s an average household debt of about $266.

A higher portion of residents in southeast and west Fresno are behind on their bills in comparison to other areas of the city, data show.

Once the city announces a return to normal business after the pandemic is over, customers are urged to call the utility, billing and collections staff at 559-621-6888 to discuss payment plan options.

Before the pandemic, financial assistance for low-income households was woefully inadequate.

Fresno’s Department of Public Utilities currently advertises on its website a City Water Affordability Credit Program for low-income water utility account holders.

The credit is $5 a month, and a maximum of $60 in a 12-month period. It’s funded for a maximum of $1 million to help approximately 16,700 households.

Additional federal funding for higher-dollar assistance will likely be available within the next year.

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