Cities, utility districts, community water systems implement permanent policies giving residents 60 days to pay their bills before disconnections
By Reggie Ellis
TULARE COUNTY – Many of the consumer protections helping residents avoid water shut offs during the pandemic will be extended beyond the economic crisis resulting from the coronavirus.
Last week, Farmersville and Woodlake were the last cities in Tulare County to approve permanent changes to their water service disconnection policies for low-income residents struggling to pay their bills. Water systems serving more than 3,000 connections were required by the state to adopt the provisions by Feb. 1 and smaller water systems had to comply by April 1.
The mandated policy prohibits shutoffs for at least 60 days following a delinquency and requires water providers to give advanced written notice and make direct contact with the residents before service can be discontinued. It also requires water providers, such as cities, public utility districts and community water systems provide for deferred payments, alternate payment schedules, and an appeals process.
Other protections under the policy include halting shutoffs for medically fragile residents or if a local health agency deems the shutoff as a serious threat to the residents’ health and safety. Lastly, if service is disrupted, the bill requires that people are told how to restore service, and it waives reconnection fees and reduces interest rates for low income households, those with household incomes below 200% of the federal poverty level, or less than $52,000 for a family of four.
The policy adds reporting requirements for water providers to post the policy, as well as the number of annual discontinuations of residential service for inability to pay, on its website.
Any water provider with more than 200 connections caught violating the policy can be fined up to $1,000 each day the violation occurs. Fines are imposed by the State Water Resources Control Board and are deposited into the State’s Safe Drinking Water Account used to provide funding for small water systems to repair or replace water systems that do not meet water quality or water pressure standards.
The new policy mandate is part of a 2018 law authored by Sen. Bill Dodd (D-Napa). Senate Bill 998 was introduced as residential water prices statewide were skyrocketing and more residents were losing access to water because of unpaid bills.
Statewide, Dodd said the cost of water grew by more than 66% between 2007 and 2015. In Los Angeles, the cost of water increased 71% between 2010 and 2017, and for San Franciscans it climbed to 127%. For many households in poverty, the cost of water is more than 5% of household income, which is more than three times the affordability threshold of 1.5%. The California Urban Water Agencies, which represents utilities serving the majority of Californians, found that more than one in five of their customers were impacted by water affordability.
While there are consistent lifeline programs for people having difficulty paying their electric, gas and telephone bills, there has been nothing more than a patchwork of local practices across thousands of water providers.