If you’ve fallen behind on your water bills, here’s what you must do to keep the tap on
A decade ago, California became the first state to “legislatively recognize the human right to water.” Part of that right is a guarantee to keep water affordable.
That’s proving to be a challenge in the Golden State as drought years and utility bills stack up.
Since the beginning of 2022, the cost of water in California has shot up 40%, further straining those who’ve struggled through a pandemic and now record inflation to keep up with their service bills.
Already, a 2021 survey found state households had amassed $1 billion in unpaid water bills. An estimated 12% of Californians had overdue payments —$500 on average — with the most debt disproportionately accumulated in Black and Latinx neighborhoods.
Even with hundreds of millions of dollars in funding through state and federal programs to help residents and businesses pay down water debt during the pandemic, as of last January, an estimated 1.6 million households are late on their water bills.
Santa Rosa Water, currently has 8,420 delinquent accounts, according to city communications coordinator, Elise Miller. That accounts for almost 16% of its roughly 53,000 accounts.
Against that backdrop, California Attorney General Rob Bonta issued consumer and legal alerts Wednesday emphasizing the protections that exist to limit water shutoffs under the Water Shutoff Protection Act, SB 998, a bill authored by State Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa.
“We’re reminding the water systems of their duties and obligations. We’re also reminding consumers across California of their rights,” Bonta said, noting his office had received “alarming reports where these rights aren’t always honored.”
The Water Shutoff Protection Act, which went into effect in 2020 and applies to any water provider with at least 200 customers, is particularly relevant since the governor’s moratorium on shutoffs lifted in January.
It’s important to know that under the law:
- Providers must give at least seven days notice before shutting off a customer’s water.
- Bills must be overdue by at least 60 days before providers can stop service.
- Water services must provide options for deferred or reduced bills and alternative payment schedules as well as formal processes for customers to contest charges. The California Public Utilities Commission can help customers negotiate a payment plan if a privately owned utility isn’t cooperative (1-800-649-7570).
- Moreover, those who meet certain health and financial requirements are protected from shutoffs if they’re willing to make alternative payments.
There are other ways, too, that water customers can get a bit of relief.
Through the new Low Income Household Water Assistance Program, people participating in public assistance programs like CalFresh or have gross incomes at or below 60% of the state median income — making $2,5464.73 a month as an individual or $4,932.17 for a family of four — can get access to a one-time payment toward their water bills of up to $2,000.
California received $116 million through the federal program. (More information is available at www.csd.ca.gov/waterbill or by calling 866-675-6623.)
For those making less than 200% of the federal poverty level, water providers must waive any interest charges owed once every 12 months.
Santa Rosa Water has a water bill assistance program, Help2Others, that gives qualifying residents 100% off their monthly fixed water and sewer charges, an approximate $41 monthly savings. Currently, there are 680 customers enrolled.
To cover those who rely on smaller water systems, Dodd is examining ways to expand the scope of the Water Shutoff Protection Act to apply to water providers with at least 50 customers instead of 200.
In September, Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed another of Dodd’s bills, SB 222, that would have created a water utility assistance fund, citing “general fund pressures,” “lower-than-expected” state revenues, and billions in rebates, grants and support services provided through the last two budgets.
“Unfortunately, with rising costs, many people are forced to choose between food, water and shelter,” Dodd said at a news conference.
“Moving forward, the state needs to continue to address the related problem of helping low-income Californians to afford to pay for clean and safe drinking water. A legal right is only good if it’s followed and enforced.”
“In Your Corner” is a new column that puts watchdog reporting to work for the community. If you have a concern, a tip, or a hunch, you can reach “In Your Corner” Columnist Marisa Endicott at 707-521-5470 or email@example.com. On Twitter @InYourCornerTPD and Facebook @InYourCornerTPD.
“In Your Corner” Columnist, The Press Democrat
Born and raised in Northern California, I'm dedicated to getting to know all its facets and helping track down the answers to tough questions. I want to use my experience as a journalist and an investigator to shine a light on local systems, policies and practices so residents have the information they need to advocate for the changes they want to see. I’m passionate about centering the many voices in the communities I cover, and I want readers to guide my work.