US Water Alliance releases new report on water shutoffs

Some water utilities had as many as 40,000 unpaid accounts during the COVID-19 pandemic

The US Water Alliance has released a new report on the practice and effect of water shutoffs due to nonpayment.

The report, titled The Path to Universally Affordable Water Access: Guiding Principles for the Water Sector, is the culmination of more than 18 months of convenings across eight U.S. cities to study the policy, practice and impact of shutting off individual access to water due to the inability to pay water bills. 

The US Water Alliance says: “Water access is essential to public health, well-being and dignity. Due to insufficient public funding, the water utility sector relied on a business model for providing municipal water service that hinges on customer’s ability to pay for services. This model renders the sector – and its customers – vulnerable to economic shocks. Water rates continue to rise to cover the growing costs of operations, maintenance, and capital investment of our aging infrastructure, and, currently, individuals bear the costs of those increases.”

For low-income households, water bills can quickly become unaffordable. When water bills cannot be paid, utilities often leverage a longstanding practice of incentivizing payment by shutting off access to water.

“Shutting off water for low-income residents reinforces the idea that denying access to a necessary resource is a reasonable response to poverty. This can have subsequent negative and lasting impact on families and communities,” says Mami Hara, CEO of the US Water Alliance. “What this work and report reveals is that utilities may remain financially resilient while ceasing service shut-offs for low-income people.” 

In eight cities across the nation, the US Water Alliance worked closely with water utilities and community-based organizations to begin to understand how widespread shutoffs are, how and when they are applied, and the impact they have.

Based on the findings, some water utilities had as many as 40,000 unpaid accounts during the COVID-19 pandemic. The average unpaid water bill ranged from $200 to almost $2,000, debts much higher than what low-income households can realistically pay back.

“This work demonstrates that shutoffs, as a practice to address unpaid bills, do the most harm to those who cannot afford to pay their utility bills due to economic constraints,” says Deborah Martinez, CEO Mission of Love Charities. “I am hopeful that the creative and innovative solutions that resulted from this work, and the key principles to create equitable affordability policies will enable water utilities to put an end to the practice of water shutoffs for low-income households.”

Some shutoffs last for 24 hours while others can extend to seven days or more. One city found that shutoff times were four times longer in majority Black communities than in majority white census tracts. Low-income households are more likely to experience longer and repeated shutoffs, suggesting an ongoing inability to pay.

During the process of the 18-month project, utilities and community-based organizations explored solutions that would enable financial resiliency of water utilities and end the practice of shutoffs with low-income individuals.

“As a utility participating in the pilot program, Buffalo Water recognized the long-term, negative impact that shutoffs create,” says OJ McFoy, Chair of Buffalo Water. “This work revealed solutions that protect our responsibility to deliver essential public health infrastructure without compromising those in the community who can least afford the cost of services.”  

The full report can be downloaded and accessed here.

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