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More than 140 water districts in the central San Joaquin Valley have yet to apply for state water debt relief, leaving thousands of customers susceptible to water shutoffs after the state’s moratorium expires on Dec. 31. The deadline to apply is Monday at 5 p.m.

California residents who fell behind on paying their water bills during the pandemic are protected from having their water shut off through the end of the year.

While most water districts rejecting state funds to cover household water debt are very small, there are some larger districts in the region rejecting state assistance, according to a state survey, including Pinedale County Water District in Fresno, serving nearly 17,000 residents, and the city of Exeter in Tulare County, which serves about 10,000.

Gov. Gavin Newsom included $1 billion in the state budget this past June for the California Water and Wastewater Arrearages Program, which would forgive water debt. The fund was officially set up in September.

If water districts apply for and receive funds from the state, they can use the dollars to forgive past-due balances incurred by both residential and commercial customers from March 2020 to mid-June of 2021. Debt accrued prior to March of 2020 is not eligible for forgiveness.

Water districts that receive state funding from the program cannot charge late fees on customers for debt incurred during the covered period. They’re also required to tell customers within 60 days of receiving state assistance that their debt is either forgiven or reduced.

The Fresno City Council authorized the city’s application for $4.1 million in funding from the state to forgive water debt for more than 12,800 customers on Thursday. The city has incurred over $10 million in water debt since the pandemic began, said Fresno public utilities director Michael Carbajal.

More than 76,000 customers in the central San Joaquin Valley accumulated over $15 million in water debt in the first six months of the pandemic, according to a survey of water districts by the State Water Resources Control Board. The number is likely higher, as some water districts did not respond to the survey.

The survey also found that residents across California fell behind on their water bills by about $1 billion.

Water districts with many lower incomes and larger communities of color households are more likely to have significant water debt, according to the state’s survey. Statewide, about one in eight households accumulated some water debt during the pandemic.

Small water districts more likely to reject state assistance

Of the 140 districts in the central San Joaquin Valley who are yet to apply for state funds to forgive water and wastewater debt, over 50 have told the state in a survey they don’t plan on applying.

Most are small water districts with fewer than 1,000 customers — where they may not have the administrative capacity to apply for grants, said Uriel Saldivar, a policy advocate with Community Water Center, an advocacy organization based in Visalia. Saldivar also said that the state’s insistence that water districts stop charging late fees for debt incurred during the pandemic may also be discouraging some agencies from applying.

Orosi Public Utilities District, serving nearly 9,000 people in northern Tulare County, is among those that have decided not to apply for state funds. The district was extremely impacted by people not paying their water bills during the pandemic, said Elena Vidana, office manager for the district. But the program initially covered just water debt — and they provide water, wastewater, and street lighting services, she said.

The Orosi Public Utilities District also started doing intense outreach earlier this year to connect customers with Self-Help Enterprises, a local nonprofit that administers rent and utility relief, which helped cover some of the debt. Many pandemic rental assistance programs throughout California allow customers to apply for utility relief as well.

Terra Bella Irrigation District in southern Tulare County, which serves nearly 5,000 people, didn’t see the need, according to Sean Geivet, general manager.

“We’ve been operating normally through the pandemic,” Geivet said. “We never stopped threatening to shut people off. Everyone’s been paying normally. We have maybe less than 10 accounts that are past due.”

Water affordability a concern before pandemic

Even before the pandemic, the price of drinking water was a concern for residents and valley water districts. “At any given time, there’s always a portion of our customer base who struggles to pay their bill. That’s inherent, given the demographics of our city,” said Carbajal of Fresno City’s public utilities.

Saldivar says this concern highlights the need for more permanent rate assistance programs for customers with lower incomes. Senate Bill 222, introduced by California Sen. Bill Dodd, would set up such a program.

SB 222 is supported by several organizations that work with people living in poverty but is opposed by ACWA, the largest organization representing water districts in California, because the bill doesn’t specify where funding to support the rate assistance would come from, they say. The bill is currently inactive at the moment.

“A lot of families have been struggling and falling behind because water bills typically outpace the cost of inflation,” Saldivar said.

With the water shut-off moratorium coming to an end for many California residents at the end of the year, people could start to see their taps halted — even if temporarily — in early January.

“Before COVID, shutting off water was the norm,” said Elena Vidana, office manager with the Orosi Public Utilities District. “But we always work with people before we get to that point. And usually, as soon as the water shuts off, people show up right away, and we work with them to restore service.”

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