When prices of commonly used items go up, consumers must make decisions as to the value of those items and whether they are affordable; but what if water is the item in question? Water is arguably the most critical resource to all living beings, but it is not free. Astonishingly, millions of Americans are forced to choose between water and other important items, like food, rent or mortgage, electricity, or medications. In 2012, the state of California declared that all residents have a right to clean, safe and affordable drinking water, the first state to do so, yet it faces the dilemma of how to guarantee that right.

The impacts of drought and costs associated with infrastructure improvements are driving water prices higher. With drought restrictions in place and voluntary cutbacks encouraged, water use drops and a corresponding drop in revenue ensues for water providers. To recapture lost income, the losses are passed on to the consumer as rate hikes. Infrastructure repairs and upgrades along with storage projects are not cheap, the state investing billions to ensure future resilience. Although recent infrastructure legislation will provide funds toward those endeavors, the funds will be exhausted long before all necessary repairs and upgrades are completed, and the remaining costs will continue to be passed along to consumers.

Water prices in California have increased by approximately 40 percent since the beginning of the year, resulting in 1 in 10 households being unable to pay monthly water bills.[1] In response to the growing concern that millions will have their water shut off, California Attorney General Rob Bonta issued a “legal alert” in October that served as a reminder to water providers of the requirements under the Water Shutoff Protection Act. The act protects a customer from shutoff for at least 60 days from payment due date, and the provider must also allow for seven days’ notice before termination of service.  Further, providers must permit alternative or deferred payments, especially for those who meet certain health or financial conditions.[2]

The Infrastructure and Jobs Act allocates $225 million in grants to reduce the water rates for low-income households and address arrearages, though these funds are shared between all states and as such won’t cover the entirety of the need.  Several local programs provide funds to assist low-income residents to avoid shutoffs, and $200 million is currently allocated by the state to assist with water bills; however, these funding sources are not long-term and are often only offered one time per household.  In an attempt to establish a permanent program aimed at helping low-income residents pay for water and sewage, California lawmakers voted in August to create the Water Rate Assistance Program. The bill was vetoed by Gov. Newsom who stated, “This is a permanent program that would not be implemented or initiated until funding is provided.  At this time, there is no sustainable, ongoing funding identified.”[3]

The state and the consumer are left facing difficult water decisions.  The state made a promise that clean, affordable, and accessible water is a right guaranteed to all but has yet to determine how to keep that promise.  Until that time, the consumer must continue making choices as to what to forgo to pay for that right.

[1] Pineda, Dorany. “As Drought Drives Prices Higher, Millions of Californians Struggle to Pay for Water.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 24 Oct. 2022, https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-10-24/millions-of-californians-are-struggling-to-pay-for-water.

[2] “Attorney General Bonta Issues Legal Guidance to Water Providers on Protections for Residents Facing Water Shutoffs.” State of California - Department of Justice - Office of the Attorney General, 26 Oct. 2022, https://oag.ca.gov/news/press-releases/attorney-general-bonta-issues-legal-guidance-water-providers-protections.

[3] Governor, California; Newsom (2022). “Veto of Senate Bill 222.” Gov.ca.gov, 28 Sept. 2022, https://gov.ca.gov/wp-content/uploads/2022/09/SB-222-VETO.pdf?emrc=00d97d.