House Water Committee Takes up Water Utility Assistance During COVID-19

In April, we wrote about the national crisis of access to clean water and steps needed here in Oregon to ensure families have running water while they have been sheltering at home to stop the spread of coronavirus.

Although utilities across the state have suspended shutoff policies during the pandemic, the looming end to the emergency declaration and falling utility revenues raises questions about how we will move forward as a state to support those in need…

Over the past several months, we have been working to start a conversation about water utility assistance for households in economic crisis and water providers on the brink, and last Friday, the Oregon House Water Committee took up the question during an informational hearing with water providers. You can watch the whole hearing here.

The Committee heard from Seal Rock Water District on the Oregon Coast, which has seen a 3x increase in the number of customers unable to pay their utility bills while projected revenue from vacation properties and tourism-dependent businesses has dried up.

Tualatin Valley Water District reported that 1,253 customers are currently behind on their bills, adding up to $300,000 in unpaid expenses.

And Clackamas County Water Environment Services described needed capital improvements previously planned under different economic circumstances, and concern about the possibility of rate spikes for utilities whose long-term financial estimates are now full of uncertainty.

Most public water utilities operate on thin margins and don’t have reserves to weather the storm. Not only are they seeing immediate impacts from reduced revenues and increased demands on operations (e.g. social distancing, rotating shifts, increased overtime), but if local tax revenues drop months down the road, there could be a second hit for smaller communities.

Ultimately, when water utilities are understaffed and underfunded, there is increased risk to drinking water safety, public health and clean water in our rivers.

As Greg Geist, Director of Clackamas County Water Environment Services, said, “We can’t let one public health crisis create another.”

OEC’s Legislative Director, Morgan Gratz-Weiser, testified during the informational hearing to set the context that access to water is an environmental health and justice issue that we’re hearing more and more about both nationally and right here in Oregon.

Clean, safe and affordable water is a basic human need. It’s how we wash our hands to prevent the spread of coronavirus. It’s how we flush our toilets and bathe. It’s how we cook lunch and dinner for our families who are sheltering at home. And it’s a key component for our businesses that are trying to get back to work.

We are hearing from community partners that people are fearful of what will happen after the emergency declaration is lifted. As we face record unemployment, families and small business owners may not be able to pay back arrears and bad debt accrued during this time, setting off a domino of economic and health impacts in communities who are already hit hardest.

While many water utilities provide some sort of low-income program for their customers, there is no statewide water assistance support to fill a dire need.

This is the big takeaway: Stimulus funding for water assistance can both deliver needed operations revenue to utilities and pay off arrears for low-income Oregonians.

Our members of Congress are fighting for funding to expand the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (known as LIHEAP) to include assistance for water. Congresswoman Bonamici championed $1.5 billion for LIHEAP and an additional $1.5 billion to support water and wastewater providers in the House version of the HEROES Act, and Senator Wyden is working hard to keep that funding in the Senate version. However, until negotiations are over, we won’t know what support will ultimately show up for Oregon families and utilities.

Representatives Power and Reardon asked utility representatives during Friday’s informational hearing about how much longer they can continue to suspend shutoffs and what will be needed if the federal government does not act. The answers and timelines are currently unclear, but representatives for the utilities and cities expect hard decisions will be ahead if assistance is not found.

This highlights the need to start a conversation about water affordability and create an Oregon offramp from this crisis that helps utilities maintain service as families are navigating out of financial stress.

Based on conversations we’ve had with Community Action Partnership of Oregon and League of Oregon Cities, any plan to address these shortfalls should include:

  • Direct assistance to utilities to offset customer arrears and bad debt
  • Direct assistance to low-income Oregonians
  • Expanded policies that prevent disconnections and flexible payment plans for customers
  • Using existing energy assistance systems, where needed, as a way to leverage current programs for delivery to low-income households
  • A coordinated offramp for utility shutoff moratoria when the emergency declaration is lifted so that assistance providers can be ready to help

Safe drinking water and sanitation are generally recognized as the most essential public health, public welfare, and civic necessities. Whether during a pandemic or not, lack of access to water puts communities at risk.

While this conversation primarily focuses on affordability in public and private water systems, we must also acknowledge the water challenges our neighbors are facing during this pandemic that go beyond the inability to pay utility bills. Over the past months, residents of Warm Springs, particularly elders, were without running water for a week due to a pump failure; the state issued new rules and funding to ensure farmworkers have access to handwashing stations on the job; cities have put out public handwashing stations for houseless communities, but hygiene options are still limited; and many Oregonians continue to deal with the ongoing challenges of contaminated water, potentially increasing their risk for COVID-19.

We cannot let our water providers fail, and we must make sure all Oregonians have access to safe water in their homes, schools and at work.

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