Sunday, January 31, 2021
The ongoing pandemic once again brings into sharp focus the precarious state of water access and affordability in the U.S. According to a recent report from California, unpaid water bills there top $1 billion, dwarfing delayed rental payments in the state. While data for other states is difficult to find, North Carolina reported in July 2020 that arrears in the state amounted to an estimated $81 million. Congress has taken note of the issue, and in December added $638 million to a COVID relief bill to address water debt. Unfortunately, the amount is far short of what is required to retire the water debt of California alone, much less the entire country.
The human rights and civil rights issues that this situation raises require affirmative government responses, not after-the-fact corrections. Last week, the Massachusetts State Advisory Committee of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights issued the first-in-the-nation State Advisory Committee report on water affordability and access. Titled Turning off the Tap: Massachusetts' Looming Water Affordability Crisis, the report urges Massachusetts to adopt the principle that water is a human right, and to take affirmative steps to get ahead of the affordability crisis before it spirals out of control. The Committee's recommendations for Massachusetts are:
1. Local water authorities should be required to collect demographic and tenure data on households experiencing water shut-offs or liens.
2. Landlords should be required to pass on to tenants at least a percentage of savings occasioned by any water rate discounts.
3. Low income tenants should be eligible for direct subsidies to offset the costs of basic household water reflected in rent payments.
4. Tenants should be empowered to temporarily enjoin water shut-offs resulting from a landlord’s delinquency.
5. Water authorities should establish arrearage management programs for consumers similar to programs established by all regulated gas and electric utilities.
6. Local water authorities should collect data on payment plans offered to water consumers, to ensure that favorable plans are not offered on a discriminatory basis. Vulnerable water consumers should be afforded the same termination protections extended by the Commonwealth to vulnerable customers of regulated gas and electricity utilities.
7. The Commonwealth should encourage and directly subsidize cost-lowering water conservation efforts, like the installation of water efficient toilets, leak repairs, and general infrastructure repair.
8. The Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities should oversee water rates and increases in water rates as it oversees regulated gas and electricity rates