Last month, California Natural Resources Agency Secretary Wade Crowfoot warned Bay Area residents to brace for a fourth dry year in a row. As the state’s drought continues to compromise the drinking water supply of millions of people across the state, for some Californians, scarcity isn’t the only reason they can’t access water.
For California’s low-income communities, the cost of potable water is increasingly out of reach.
For years, the cost of treating, monitoring and delivering clean water to Californians has been rising and that cost has been passed on to residents. According to the California Urban Water Agencies, a nonprofit corporation of 11 major urban water agencies — which includes the San Francisco, Santa Clara, Alameda, East Bay and Contra Costa water districts and public utilities commissions — the residential water bills within its member agencies’ jurisdictions increased an average of 7% per year from 2007 to 2014. That is more than double the rate of inflation.
This rapid rise in cost has made water unaffordable for many. A 2017 survey published in the Journal of the American Water Works Association found that the average water bill in California increased 125% from 2003 to 2013 while median incomes increased by only 12% during that same period. More recent data confirms rising costs have only continued. A 2020 report from the California Environmental Protection Agency found that water rates in San Francisco rose 127% between 2010 and 2017.
The result: According to a 2021 California Water Boards report, nearly 650,000 residential and 46,000 business accounts in California owed more than $315 million in unpaid water and wastewater bills. Moreover, the report found that this debt was disproportionately carried by communities of color. Zip codes with higher percentages of Latino and Black households were found to have a higher percentage of households with some level of debt, a higher-average level of debt and a higher percentage of households with very-high levels of debt.
Families shouldn’t be expected to choose between paying their water bill and other basic needs.
Fortunately, California lawmakers agree. Late last month, the Legislature passed SB222, which would create a state program to help low-income Californians pay their water and sewage bills. SB222 was passed with strong bipartisan support and now awaiting final approval from Gov. Gavin Newsom. If signed into law, the bill would make California the first state in the nation to offer water affordability assistance at this scale.
Gov. Newsom understands how important access to safe water is. In 2019, he called it a “moral disgrace” that over 1 million Californians did not have regular access to safe drinking water. Later that year, he championed and signed into law SB200, which established an ongoing fund to pay for solutions to unsafe drinking water.
But ensuring Californians’ water is safe to consume is only half the battle. People also need to be able to afford it. SB222 is the next logical step in the struggle for water justice.
Last month, the governor released California’s Water Supply Strategy, a long-term plan to invest in new water sources and transform water management. The report rightly points out that the state is already working on increasing affordability. For example, earlier this year, the state provided $301 million in pandemic-related water debt relief. But the financial strain of costly water bills started well before the pandemic, and as the report also notes, “the increased investments in infrastructure necessary to meet our future water supply needs will put additional pressure on affordability.”
If approved by the governor, and funded sustainably, the financial assistance SB222 would provide to low-income Californians would be similar to what the state already offers low-income residents for electricity and telecommunication utility costs.
Ten years ago, California communities paying unaffordable bills for unsafe water celebrated as then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law the Human Right to Water. With that legislation, our state became the first to recognize that every human being, regardless of race, income or immigration status, has a right to safe and affordable drinking water and basic sanitation. Now, Gov. Newsom has the opportunity to move California closer to this promise by signing SB222.
As the governor noted back in 2019, “solving this crisis demands sustained funding. It demands political will.”
Affordable water is within our reach — it is now up to the governor to make it happen.
Susana De Anda is the executive director of Community Water Center. Michael Claiborne is directing attorney at Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability.