ACWA Weighs in on State Water Affordability Legislation

  • by Dave Eggerton
  • Mar 19, 2021
  • Voices on Water

ACWA and its member agencies care greatly about water affordability and recognize the centrality of this issue during these uniquely challenging times. ACWA is advocating in Washington, D.C. (already with some success) and in Sacramento for federal and state funding to help public water systems and treatment works cover customer arrearages accrued during the pandemic. This funding is needed quickly — through immediate action — as opposed to through the legislative process for long-term policy bills. 

Two state policy bills introduced this year and related to water affordability are well-intended  but contain fundamental flaws that would make the measures counterproductive. 

Sen. Bill Dodd (D-Napa) is the author of companion bills SB 222 and SB 223. At ACWA’s March 11 virtual Legislative Symposium, Dodd indicated that he is willing to work with ACWA on the bills. Work to resolve the issues is critical. The first bill, SB 222, would require the State Water Resources Control Board to create an overly broad and costly water and wastewater affordability program with many components, implemented in part by roughly 2,900 public water systems. ACWA has an oppose-unless-amended position and is suggesting, with detailed amendments, that the bill propose one major program – a water and wastewater low-income water rate assistance program. The state should build on an existing low-income financial assistance program, such as CalFresh and the California Food Assistance Program, as opposed to reinventing the wheel. This approach would help low-income households across the state and have much lower administrative costs. 

Meanwhile, the second bill, SB 223, would require public water systems to forgive the entire balance of a customer’s unpaid water debt if the customer enters into an arrearage management plan.  A proposal for a mandate for full or partial water debt forgiveness by public water agencies would be illegal under the state Constitution. Under Proposition 218, public water agencies cannot legally use revenue from some of its customers to subsidize the cost of service for other customers. 

In addition to being illegal, the proposal would harm the financial stability of public water agencies and, in doing so, would jeopardize their ability to provide safe drinking water to all customers, comply with other regulatory requirements and replace aging infrastructure. 

SB 223 would also re-write the restrictions on discontinuation of residential water service that were put into place by the enactment of SB 998 in 2018, also authored by Dodd. ACWA agrees with Dodd that the conditions on discontinuation of service are important. Also important is the communication between systems and their customers regarding plans for payment. ACWA member agencies have a long history of working with their customers who struggle to pay their bills by creating payment plans.

SB 998, and its new conditions on discontinuation of service, went into full effect in early February of 2020 – two months before Governor Newsom issued the executive order that suspended the authority for discontinuation of service during the pandemic. The reality is that SB 998 has only been in full effect for two months. The Legislature should give that law time to work. ACWA is agreeing to address issues that were not addressed in SB 998 (e.g., expand its scope to smaller systems and work to add reasonable provisions regarding emergency situations, such as a pandemic).

ACWA is making the case to the author, Legislature and sponsors as to why the introduced versions of the bill are problematic. Between now and when the bills are heard in committee in April, ACWA will also work with the author and sponsors on amendments to improve affordability in an effective, efficient, legal and sustainable way.

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