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California warns water agencies over shutoffs amid higher prices, missed payments

SACRAMENTO -- The California Department of Justice on Wednesday issued a "legal alert" intended to help protect people from water shutoffs as the state continues to struggle with drought, rising prices and the lingering economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

State Attorney General Rob Bonta said he issued the alert partly as a response to an estimated 40% increase in the price of certain types of water transactions so far this year and the fact that roughly 1.6 million Californians have fallen behind on their payments as of January 2021.

"Many families here in our state can't pour a glass of water, can't wash their hands, can't even flush their toilets," Bonda said during a press 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 Gov. Gavin Newsom in 2018.

Dodd, who was also at the press conference, said the law is intended to help the state's most vulnerable residents, including low-income households, seniors, children, and people living with illnesses and disabilities.

"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 the reason why I wrote the Water Shutoff Protection Act."

Under the act, most water providers can't discontinue service unless a bill is overdue for at least 60 days, must provide at least seven days' notice before turning services off and must make a good faith effort to provide a notice if phone and written efforts are unsuccessful.

Also, water systems can't discontinue service to customers who meet certain health and financial requirements and who are willing to make alternative payments.

Water systems must also have a way for customers to make deferred or reduced payments, sign up for alternative payment schedules and be able to contest or appeal their bills.

During the height of the pandemic, the state initiated a temporary water shutoff moratorium so people who were suffering financial hardships could still have access to drinking water.

That expired at the beginning of 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 roughly 2 million people via 13 local retail water systems, has partnered with Sacred Heart Community Service on a $2 million assistance fund.

Their Low-Income Residential Water Rate Assistance Program has so far provided $670,000 to 1,519 South Bay households, according to Valley Water spokesperson Matt Keller.

The East Bay Municipal Utility District, which delivers 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 roughly $30 million to 27,000 households, according to district officials.

Also, during the past two years or so, the state has spent $1 billion to help water and wastewater systems cope with unpaid bills that piled up 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, there is no sustainable, ongoing funding identified," Newsom said in his veto message.

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