LA Times: As water rates climb, many are struggling to pay for an essential service

By Ian James

In California and across the country, household water rates have been rising as utilities invest to upgrade aging infrastructure, secure future supplies and meet treatment standards for clean drinking water. As monthly water bills continue to increase, growing numbers of customers have been struggling to pay.

New federal legislation would establish a water assistance program to help low-income families pay their bills and prevent shutoffs of water service.

The bill, introduced by Democratic Sen. Alex Padilla, would make permanent a federal program that Congress authorized in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. The program provided more than $1 billion in assistance, but it’s expiring.

“Access to clean, safe drinking water is a fundamental right. And you shouldn’t have to forgo that just because you’re low-income,” Padilla said. “And you certainly shouldn’t have to decide between paying the water bill versus keeping the lights on, versus paying the rent.”

Padilla said the Low-Income Household Water Assistance Program, or LIHWAP, has proved successful in preventing disconnections of water service, restoring service after shutoffs, and helping those who are struggling to afford their water bills.

Since 2021, more than 1.4 million households across the country have received assistance through the program, including 77,000 households in California.

The bill has been supported by organizations representing water suppliers. The legislation “represents an important step toward permanently enshrining low-income water and wastewater ratepayer aid in the federal safety net,” read a letter from several organizations, including the American Water Works Assn. and the Assn. of Metropolitan Water Agencies.

The bill would establish the program to give grants to states and tribal governments to provide funds to operators of water systems to help low-income households “in paying arrearages and other rates.” The program, to be administered by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, would also give grants to nonprofit organizations that qualify to assist operators of water systems in accessing funds.

The coalition of water associations said communities across the country face a need to invest heavily to upgrade water systems to deal with aging infrastructure and the effects of climate change, and to protect people from contaminants in drinking water.

“Today the cost of basic water service already imposes hardships on many low-income households,” the organizations said in their letter, adding that if Congress doesn’t continue the program, “water rate assistance will no longer be part of the federal safety net, putting hundreds of thousands of households at risk of losing their water service.”

The groups cited a national survey showing that water and sewer charges increased about 2.5 times faster than inflation between 1996 and 2018.

Data on household water rates aren’t comprehensively compiled in any public database. In recent years, researchers have sought to examine rates by collecting data for representative samples of drinking water suppliers.

Researcher Manny Teodoro, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, has tracked the water rates of a sample of about 400 water utilities across the country, and found that the average monthly bill for a typical four-person household in a single-family home was $44.77 last year, representing a 25% increase since 2017.

Other surveys by the firm Bluefield Research have compiled data on water prices in 50 of the largest U.S. metropolitan areas. Those surveys have found that monthly water bills averaged $49.53 last year for a typical household, and that over the past 12 years, combined water and sewer bills increased by 4.1% per year on average.

Water bills in California tend to be higher than in many other states. In a report released last year by the State Water Resources Control Board, researchers examined the rates of more than 2,100 California water suppliers and found the average monthly bill for a household using a typical amount of water was $65.85. The study focused on affordability but did not analyze increases in bills over time.

Padilla pointed out that the federal government already has the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which provides assistance for home heating bills, and said the water program would align income eligibility with this and other existing programs.

“We know that lower-income families are being disproportionately hit with higher and higher water bills,” Padilla said. “Just like home energy and nutrition assistance, water rate assistance is crucial for public health and economic prosperity.”

He noted that the temporary program was approved in 2020 with bipartisan support, and he hopes the push to make it permanent will also secure support from both Republican and Democratic lawmakers.

Continuing the program would also help residents in rural areas who deal with higher water rates, Padilla said.

Making the program permanent is a good initial step, said Gregory Pierce, director of UCLA’s Human Right to Water Solutions Lab. He said it’s a beneficial crisis assistance program that helps prevent shutoffs of service and provides debt assistance.

“But it doesn’t present a holistic support of affordability for households,” Pierce said. “We really want to address affordability upstream, through rate structure, through helping people consume less water, through recurring bill assistance.”

Household water prices will keep rising for the foreseeable future for various reasons, he said.

“We’ve charged too little for water in most places for a long time, so infrastructure is degraded, at the end of its useful life, and we need to invest to at least maintain it or to replace the infrastructure,” Pierce said.

Many water suppliers are also focusing on investing in more resilient local water supplies as climate change worsens droughts and makes traditional supplies less reliable, he said. And water agencies face looming requirements to upgrade treatment technologies to remove contaminants, ranging from PFAS chemicals to hexavalent chromium, as government agencies adopt more stringent standards.

“We need to do more to support those who can’t pay,” Pierce said.

Climate change is expected to add to the problem of rising costs for many communities. In a recent report, researchers with the Pacific Institute and the organization DigDeep said more intense droughts fueled by climate change can contribute to increasing water costs if a utility needs to buy a more expensive water supply, pump water from deeper underground or add treatment processes to clean degraded supplies.

“Drought worsened by climate change will likely disproportionately raise the cost of water for frontline communities, raising barriers to access due to unaffordability,” the researchers wrote.

Over the last decade, water affordability has increasingly been recognized as a problem in California.

In 2012, California became the first state in the nation to declare access to safe and affordable drinking water a human right.

During the past three years, the state has offered a program to provide relief to community water systems for unpaid bills related to the pandemic. State legislation adopted last year expanded shutoff protections for those unable to pay their water bills.

In 2022, however, Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed Senate Bill 222, which would have established a water rate assistance program, saying there was no source of “sustainable, ongoing funding” at the time.

Pierce said he thinks California should look to provide assistance to about 15% to 20% of households “to address the problem of water affordability statewide.”

“We’re past time to have done something more substantial,” he said.

The new federal legislation was endorsed by the Visalia-based Community Water Center. Leaders of the advocacy group said they hope to see this program expanded while federal officials develop a permanent low-income water affordability program.

The legislation, by establishing a program to address debt relief, is critical to help those who are unable to pay, said Kyle Jones, the center’s policy and legal director.

“This crisis assistance is really important to help deal with the effects of high water costs. But at the end of the day, we need water costs to be affordable so that we aren’t putting people in this place to begin with,” Jones said. “What we need is a program that is making sure that these water bills people are getting are not pushing them back into debt.”

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