Quick Take:

In April, the governor issued an executive order that barred water shutoffs for customers who don’t pay their water bills. State leaders are looking for ways to bail out struggling residents and smaller water systems alike, both buckling under $1 billion in water debt statewide.

The first thing Deborah Bell-Holt does each morning is check whether water still flows from her bathroom faucet.

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It always does, thanks to an April executive order from Gov. Gavin Newsom banning water disconnections during the pandemic. But that didn’t stop her utility debt from snowballing to nearly $15,000.

“They say you’re safe,” said the 67-year-old retired nurse, who manages finances for her household of twelve in South Los Angeles. “But you see that bill. How is that supposed to make you feel? You’re scared to death.”

At least 1.6 million California households, or one in eight, have water debt. Like Bell-Holt, they could face shutoffs when Newsom ends the state of emergency.

The unpaid water bills total $1 billion, according to new data from the State Water Resources Control Board. That may dwarf statewide rental debt, which the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office pegged at $400 million.

Californian’s water debt crisis, which Newsom called a “critical issue” on Monday, represents another pandemic ripple effect that jeopardizes basic human needs in the face of disaster: a shelter from the virus, safe water to drink and wash hands.

“Water to us is the most basic form of PPE,” said Jonathan Nelson, policy director for the nonprofit Community Water Center.

Water debt and potential shutoffs weigh most heavily on low-income communities of color, who suffer disproportionately from job loss and coronavirus itself. Meanwhile, unpaid bills threaten smaller water systems serving rural, poor areas.

Though Congress approved federal assistance in December for water bills, the $60 million to $70 million destined for California is no match.

“Don’t panic, but be very worried,” said Darrin Polhemus, deputy director of the water board’s Division of Drinking Water, at last week’s board meeting before revealing the estimates, which are based on a representative survey of 559 water systems in November.

Where Californians can’t pay their water bills

Bell-Holt and her husband, a disabled U.S. Army Master Sergeant, live on fixed incomes. For several years, Bell-Holt hasn’t kept up with the soaring cost of water, electricity, sewage and trash pick-up for their rented Victorian in Jefferson Park. Water comprises the biggest, fastest-growing chunk, Bell-Holt said. By February, she owed the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power about $8,000.

A copy of Deborah Bell-Holt's water bill in Jefferson Park near Downtown Los Angeles on Jan. 21, 2021. Photo by Shae Hammond for CalMatters
A copy of Deborah Bell-Holt’s December utilities bill. Since then, she used stimulus checks to pay off $2,000, leaving her total utilities debt at nearly $15,000. Photo by Shae Hammond for CalMatters

Then the pandemic hit. Bell-Holt’s household swelled from five to 12, as she took in laid-off children, several friends and her toddler grandson. Monthly utilities swelled to over $2,000.

That meant trade-offs. She stayed current on the $2,700 rent. As before, she sent regular but partial utility payments: $500 here, $1,000 there. She used December stimulus payments to shrink the debt by $2,000.

Bell-Holt lives in the epicenter of California’s water debt crisis. While average debt is $500, at least 155,000 households — mostly in Los Angeles — owe over $1,000.

In her ZIP code, nearly half of households have water debt. Of those, one fifth owe more than $1,000.

“I understand the utility companies have to make improvements but I understand that the little people are paying it,” she said. “People who are bunching up together all at home, trying to make it work.”

Poorer areas and areas with more Black and Hispanic residents have more widespread debt, higher average debt, and a higher portion of households owing over $1,000.

Water debt hotspots also pepper the Central Valley. In Delano, a majority Latino grape-growing hub of Kern County, about one in five households — over 2,200 — owe water bills.

“The cost of water is on the mind of almost all residents,” said Mayor Bryan Osorio, adding that Delano repeatedly hiked rates to cover infrastructure upgrades over the past decade.

Early on, Osorio lobbied to waive water late fees. By December, that had cost the city $371,500.

Other pockets of water debt include the farmworking city of Santa Maria along the Central Coast, the Sacramento suburb of Rancho Cordova, and the Northern California lakeside town of Clearlake.

The ‘stress cracks’ in state water system

As a California Assembly member, Bill Dodd represented Clearlake, where a third experience poverty. Across his district, tiny and struggling water systems regularly raised rates for their rural, poor customers.

He heard from constituents whose $300 water bills ate up much of their social security checks. The number of people who couldn’t afford water “was just unbelievable,” said Dodd, now a senator representing the North Bay.

Sen. Bill Dodd, Napa Democrat
Sen. Bill Dodd, Napa Democrat

In 2012, California declared the human right to safe, clean, affordable and accessible drinking water. In 2015, Dodd championed legislation to study what it would take to create a statewide water bill assistance program.

The water board’s resulting 2020 report illustrated a dire situation.

Californians get water through a chaotic patchwork of around 2,900 community water systems. Cities operate some, private utilities others. Some depend on water pumped from underground, others on rain and snow. Thousands serve a few hundred residents. Some serve millions.

As California’s water infrastructure ages and federal funding shrinks, hundreds of systems don’t keep contaminants below state and federal limits. Some deliver water polluted by hazardous chemicals from wildfires, others by “forever chemicals.” One million Californians lack access to clean water.

To cover upgrades, water systems raise rates. The average Californian paid 45% more for drinking water in 2015 than in 2007.

Unlike other utilities, California offers no statewide water bill assistance. Fewer than half of Californians get water from a system that offers any. Most smaller systems can’t afford to. Those that do provide limited help to few people, like San Francisco, where just 4.5% of eligible customers get aid.

The result: less than 20% of low-income households receive any assistance and water disconnections plagued Californians long before coronavirus. At least 500,000 people experienced shutoffs in 2019, the water board estimates.

“We were already very concerned,” said board chair E. Joaquin Esquivel, but the pandemic has “further unearthed the stress cracks.”

Will water systems survive the debt?

The mounting debt could imperil water quality too. About 130 systems mostly serving low-income areas may require emergency assistance by May, the water board estimates. Nearly 60 may need it sooner.

California’s $130 million per year Safe and Affordable Drinking Water fund could help bail them out, but the water debt “dwarfs” it, Esquivel said. In theory, this kind of revenue loss could eventually erode water quality if systems cut treatment.

That’s not something happening now and the state would step in if necessary, Polhemus said.

Still, another state board member Laurel Firestone warned that panicking water systems have chosen financial survival over customer health before. The city of Flint, Michigan switched drinking water supplies to save money in 2014, leading to mass lead contamination of majority Black residents. The same year, Detroit aggressively shut off residents’ water as a debt collection tactic as the city went bankrupt.

Possible solutions

Sen. Dodd has introduced two bills to avoid the pending shutoff crisis.

Under SB 223, water systems must provide repayment plans of at least 12 months, waive disconnection and reconnection fees for low-income households, and wait until a customer is four months late and owes over $400 to shut off water, among other protections.

SB 222 would set up the water affordability assistance program Dodd envisioned in 2015. A big hurdle remains, though: it identifies no funding.

Eventually Dodd hopes to build consensus for using state funds. For now, the program could start with private donations and federal funds as President Joe Biden has proposed $5 billion in utility bill aid.

Deborah Bell-Holt looks out the window of her house in Jefferson Park near Downtown Los Angeles on Jan. 21, 2021. Photo by Shae Hammond for CalMatters
Deborah Bell-Holt looks out the window of her house in Jefferson Park near Downtown Los Angeles on Jan. 21, 2021. Photo by Shae Hammond for CalMatters

But Bell-Holt, who along with her husband tested positive for the coronavirus last week, isn’t holding her breath for assistance. The city offered a payment plan only if she first pays $8,000 — money she doesn’t have.

So Bell-Holt will keep checking the faucet each morning and nagging her children to shorten showers. Despite Newsom’s shutoff moratorium, her heart will keep racing on instinct when she spots a white truck on her block. She’ll wonder: is it finally time to start filling buckets with water before the city disconnects her pipes?

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This article is part of the California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequality and economic survival in California.