Keeping Water Within Reach
Wash your hands. Wash your hands. Wash your hands.
Handwashing is our first line of defense against the spread of coronavirus.
But what if you don’t have running water in your home?
This is the reality for a staggering number of households across the country right now – many of whom have had their water service shut off, often for being behind on unaffordable water bills.
Clean, safe and affordable water is a basic human need. It’s how we wash our hands. 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 how we keep our minds and bodies healthy and strong.
As confirmed COVID-19 cases continue to rise across Oregon, plugging the holes in our water system that leave both housed and unhoused people without access to basic, life-saving hygiene and health is one of our most urgent needs.
Fortunately, some utilities and municipalities have already taken emergency action to keep the water running, help families afford bills and not rack up late payment fees during this time of economic uncertainty, and deploy water and hygiene stations throughout their communities:
~The cities of La Grande, Independence, and Redmond, Coos Bay – North Bend Water Board, and the Medford Water Commission are some of the water providers that have suspended water disconnections and late fees during the COVID-19 public health emergency to ensure the public has access to the resources they need to stay healthy and take care of their families.
~Portland Water Bureau will not disconnect customers’ water service due to payment issues during this health emergency and will not charge late fees. The Bureau is also reaching out to customers to reconnect service, and City officials have placed hygiene stations throughout the community to help people experiencing homelessness avoid spreading the coronavirus.
~Eugene Water & Electric Board has not only suspended all shutoffs and late fees, but also expanded bill assistance programs to cover customers who experience job loss. The City of Eugene and Lane County officials have also deployed hand-washing stations, and City councilors have called for greater action for the unhoused community.
Although this is not a comprehensive list, it shows that water providers of a range of sizes can help support their communities and slow the spread of the coronavirus by stopping disconnections and late fees for the duration of the COVID-19 crisis. However, these emergency response actions coupled with decreased incoming revenue due to the economic downturn will not be without impacts to utilities in the short- and long-term. Future economic stimulus plans will need to consider water utilities to ensure costs are not passed onto local customers through even higher water rates.
Oregonians cannot wait for all 3,380 water providers across the state to develop new policies. We must make sure Oregonians have immediate access to running water by enacting a statewide moratorium on water shutoffs for nonpayment and urging support for bill assistance, service restorations, and emergency water stations.
Here are the commitments that are needed across the state:
- Stop residential water shutoffs for the duration of the COVID-19 crisis, extending until 120-days after the end of the declared health emergency to allow people time to regain their financial footing.
- Ensure that utilities reconnect households without water as quickly as possible, proactively, and without the need for a customer to make a specific request.
- Ensure that water reconnections are done safely, for both residents and workers.
- Where necessary, establish emergency water distribution stations for households waiting for their water to be turned back on.
- Make sure utilities waive late fees, interest, and related charges, suspend the use of liens as a collection practice, and provide extended repayment plans after the crisis.
We recognize that local governments are overwhelmed trying to triage the many needs of communities and the health care system right now, and water is among a long list of essential services people need secured. That is why state direction is necessary now to provide clear guidance to water providers as part of Oregon’s emergency response.
Twenty-eight states have already taken action to stop some or all water shutoffs, and federal support may be on the way. Members of Congress have called for a national moratorium on water shutoffs and restoration of service for any disconnected households. The EPA also recommends widespread adoption of these practices as critical support for public health. And utilities and others are advocating for water funding in the next federal stimulus package to support low-income water assistance, debt relief and water restoration during the crisis, as well as investments to improve our water infrastructure, make service more affordable and create jobs.
There is no comprehensive database tracking the number of Oregonians without running water, but a report from Food and Water Watch showed that more than 2,700 Portland households had their water shut off in 2016. Nationally, as many as one in three households are struggling to pay their bills and an estimated 15 million people experience a water shutoff for nonpayment each year.
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, as we’ve seen during recent water crises in Warm Springs and Salem.
Statewide action is needed now to make sure all Oregonians have the basic tools to battle the spread of the coronavirus and keep their families healthy, but we also need to take a hard look at whether our water infrastructure is serving all Oregonians equally.
UPDATE 4.7.20: There have not been any reports of water shutoffs in Oregon during the COVID-19 crisis, and if your water is disconnected, you should call your water provider and see what they can do to help. However, the best practices outlined above go beyond the basics of preventing new shutoffs to ensure we are proactively doing what we can to ensure access to water for all Oregonians and helping households regain their footing after the end of the declared health emergency without increased debt.
This article has been updated to reflect that these commitments are needed across the many levels of government who provide and oversee services.