By Kiley Russell. Bay City News.
The California Department of Justice issued a "legal alert" on Wednesday aimed at helping protect people from water shutoffs as the state continues to battle drought, rising prices and the lingering economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The state attorney general, Rob Bonta, said it issued the alert in part in response to an estimated 40 percent increase in the price of certain types of water transactions so far this year and the fact that approximately 1.6 million Californians have fallen behind on their payments as of January 2021.
"Many families here in our state can't get a glass of water, can't wash their hands, can't even flush the toilet," Bonta said during a news conference Wednesday. "All because they can't make their water payments and are facing plummeting credit scores."
The alert was sent to drinking water systems to remind them of the protections codified in the state's Water Shutoff Protection Act, which was authored by state Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, and signed by the governor Gavin Newsom in 2018.
Dodd, who was also at the news conference, said the law is intended to help the state's most vulnerable residents, including low-income households, the elderly, children, and people living with illness and disability.
"Access to water is a fundamental right," Dodd said. "Unfortunately, with rising costs, many people are forced to choose between food, water and shelter, and that's really why I wrote the Water Shutoff Protection Act."
Under the law, most water providers cannot discontinue service unless a bill is at least 60 days past due, they must provide at least seven days' notice before disconnecting services, and they must make a good faith effort. faith to provide notice by phone and in writing.
Additionally, water systems cannot interrupt service to customers who meet certain financial and health requirements and are willing to make alternative payments.
Water systems must also have a way for customers to make deferred or reduced payments, sign up for alternate payment schedules, and to dispute or appeal their bills.
During the height of the pandemic, the state initiated a temporary water shutoff moratorium so that people experiencing financial hardship could still have access to clean water.
That expired in early 2022 and now many local drinking water providers offer bill payment assistance through the federal Low Income Household Water Assistance Program, which offers a one-time payment of up to $2,000.
Some local water systems offer additional help through their own locally funded programs.
For example, the Santa Clara Valley Water District, a wholesaler that provides drinking water to approximately 2 million people through 13 local retail water systems, has partnered with Sacred Heart Community Service on an assistance fund of 2 million dollars.
Its Low-Income Residential Water Rate Assistance Program has so far provided $670,000 to 1,519 South Bay households, according to Valley Water spokesman Matt Keller.
The East Bay Municipal Utility District, which supplies drinking water to 1.4 million customers in Alameda and Contra Costa counties, also offers its own Customer Assistance Program.
Since its inception 35 years ago, EBMUD has provided approximately $30 million to 27,000 households, according to district officials.
Additionally, over the past two years or so, the state has spent billions of dollars to help water and sewer systems deal with unpaid bills that accumulated while the water shutoff moratorium was in effect.
And while the state has earmarked roughly $200 million for water bill assistance in the current budget, Newsom vetoed another Dodd bill in September that would have established a permanent Water Rate Assistance Fund.
"At this time, no continued and sustainable funding has been identified," Newsom said in his veto message.
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