In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Americans are pushing water utilities and governors to keep water flowing regardless of unpaid bills.
Without a national ban on water shutoffs at least for the duration of the coronavirus pandemic, families in some cities are still receiving shut off notices. It’s unacceptable and irresponsible - but community by community, we’re pushing back.
Stop Turning Our Water Off
In the small town of Alpha, New Jersey (population 2,000), three dozen homes actually -- and outrageously -- received notices warning that their water was being turned off within the next several days. In the midst of a total shutdown of all the town’s municipal facilities, the notices advised residents to pay their bills online, or place them in a drop box at the municipal offices.
Residents who were served with notices contacted the local media, and the utility quickly announced that the notices were sent out in error. But without strong statewide action (in lieu of national action), this could happen in other towns in New Jersey. Governor Phil Murphy has been “encouraging” utilities to voluntarily pause water shutoffs. Clearly that’s not good enough.
People in New Jersey need Gov. Murphy to enact a firm order to suspend all new shutoffs for nonpayment, and for every utility to waive all late fees and reconnect all households who lost service for nonpayment.
Meanwhile, over a thousand miles south, a similar debacle went down in Lake Worth Beach, Florida. A city commission meeting erupted in a shouting match over the utility’s process of shutting off power and water despite the COVID-19 crisis. According to one Commissioner, 52 households were cut off in just one week, with another 53 scheduled to be shut off the following week.
Again, residents spoke out and thanks to the actions of a few local leaders and the glare of the media spotlight, the shutoff policies were changed. The city has now suspended shutoffs.
Unfortunately, media attention and public outrage isn’t always enough. In Troy, Missouri, 41 customers were shut off while the country started to grapple with the pandemic. Frustrated residents contacted City Hall, but the mayor seemed unwilling to budge on granting any leniency to families who were behind on their payments, saying that they would consider changing the policy at a meeting in early April. They would still be without water if a generous donor didn’t step up and pay their bills.
In the Seattle suburb of Kirkland, the town has still not developed a plan to stop water service shutoffs, even though a nursing home in the community was one of the first places to see the deadly impacts of the coronavirus.
We Need All States to Stop Water Shutoffs
As of Tuesday morning, 364 municipalities and states have suspended water shutoffs, protecting more than 137 million people — that’s more than 40% of the US population — but the fact that water service in a given state is a patchwork of systems makes it difficult to expect any consistency. Without state laws requiring disclosure, it is hard to even track how many households are shut off for nonpayment in a given year, much less how many remain without water service right now during this pandemic.
Governors have the power to enforce statewide action by demanding that all utilities suspend shutoffs in a time of emergency and restore service to those who have lost it prior. So far, very few states have initiated statewide moratoria on all water shutoffs. Some have moved to halt shutoffs across the state, but only for investor-owned utilities, the finances of which are regulated by the state utility commissions. We need every Governor to suspend shutoffs for every water utility and order service restoration, nothing less.
After Governor Tony Evers issued an Executive Order declaring a public health emergency in Wisconsin to enhance the state's response to COVID-19, the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin (PSC) directed water, electric, and natural gas utilities to cease disconnecting residential service for nonpayment until the state public health emergency is lifted. They also urged utilities to make reasonable attempts to reconnect service to occupied dwellings that had been disconnected. The Wisconsin PSC has authority over any utility that provides water to the public. As a result, all Wisconsin households served by water systems are protected from losing running water right now. That one order protects more than 4 million people,
The Governor of Indiana, Eric Holcomb, also issued an Executive Order temporarily prohibiting providers of water services from discontinuing service to any customer during this state of public health emergency, protecting 12 million people. The Governor of Maryland Larry Hogan has taken similar action prohibiting all utility disconnections as well as late fees during the crisis, protecting more than 5 million.
Water Should Be Affordable At All Times
The quick action we have seen from all over the country is encouraging. But it should remind us that this access to clean water should be a universal right, at all times.
From 1977 to 2017, federal funding for water fell by 77 percent. After that, the only way localities could raise enough funding to cover necessary infrastructure improvements, was to hike up water rates. That’s why, even prior to this pandemic, so many people are unable to pay their water bills.
We’re working with lawmakers on the Water Affordability, Transparency, Equity and Reliability (WATER) Act to restore adequate federal support to our water infrastructure to guarantee access to safe and affordable water and sanitation at all times. The WATER Act would serve as a permanent safeguard for water in the United States during moments like these, but also every other moment.