State Water Resources Control Board adopts historic plan to address water-related COVID-debt

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

SACRAMENTO, Calif. - Yesterday, the State Water Resource Control Board voted to adopt the California Water & Wastewater Arrearage Payment Program Guidelines (WWAP). These guidelines are the forerunner to the disbursement of hundreds of millions of dollars in debt relief to customers of California’s public water systems.

In July the Legislature, recognizing the dramatic need for action to address the growing water debt crisis, appropriated $1 billion to address COVID-related water debt impacting over 5 million Californians across the state. 

“This is an important milestone that will extend a lifeline to families struggling to afford water,” said Senator Bill Dodd, author of SB 222, which would establish a statewide low-income rate assistance program for water. “Thanks to Governor Newsom, all the advocates, and everybody who helped these guidelines come to fruition. Access to drinking water is a necessity of life and a fundamental human right.”  

Water Justice Advocates applauded the Board’s quick action in approving the Arrearage Program Guidelines and ensuring water systems waive late fees for customers with arrearages. “The State Water Board has really stepped up to the moment,” said Jennifer Clary, California State Director for Clean Water Action.  “They’re ahead of the schedule set by the State Legislature and they’ve included important protections for ratepayers and taxpayers in the guidance approved today” Jennifer noted that this program provides an opportunity to test policies that could be made permanent, like broadening the shutoff requirements adopted by the legislature in 2018 and providing water bill assistance to low-income ratepayers. 

While applauding the quick action of the Board, advocates also expressed concern that some customers will not be helped. “For WWAPP to be successful, we need the program to be equitable and intentional,” says Kyle Jones, Policy Director for Community Water Center. “We support the guidelines approved by the Water Board, which require participating water systems to waive late fees and provide for assistance where utility debts have been transferred to third parties. However, we are concerned that some water systems are choosing not to participate even as their customers drown in debts from the pandemic and risk losing access to drinking water. ”

The results of the survey indicate that, for water systems that intend to participate, 100% of Covid-related drinking water arrearages incurred between March 2020 and June 2021 can be met through the Legislature’s budget appropriation. However, it appears that many water systems do not plan to seek debt relief funds, and other debt found on water bills, including wastewater arrearages or debt incurred during the most recent delta variant outbreak, is not included in this package. For that reason the Board guidelines require public water systems to offer extended repayment plans to those customers with remaining debt.

“While many water systems plan to participate in this program, it is unfortunate that some bad actor water systems would prefer to shut off their customers rather than apply for debt relief funding,” said Michael Claiborne, Directing Attorney with Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, “this points to the need to extend and strengthen water shutoff protections that prevent low-income households from losing access to essential services.” Because the accumulated water debt was lower than estimated from a November 2020 survey, the Board expects to have available funds to address wastewater bill arrearages, but due to the requirements of the legislation, that is expected to be delayed until early 2022. 

The Board received responses to their debt survey from 2,293 out of the 2,871 eligible community water systems . A list of community water systems and their survey responses can be found here. The Board plans to keep the survey and application process open through All communities should have the opportunity to access these funds. Advocates urge eligible systems to apply for funds. 

 

Cristal Gonzalez
(415) 767-6753
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