GUEST COMMENTARY: Helping Water Ratepayers Stay Afloat During COVID

GUEST COMMENTARY: Helping Water Ratepayers Stay Afloat During COVID

Created: 04 March, 2021
Last update: 27 July, 2022


By Mona Rios

Mona Rios

The pandemic has brought into even more compelling focus an important societal issue in San Diego County and California: How to ensure that everyone has access to safe and reliable water supplies.

State estimates show there are approximately $1 billion in uncollected water bills statewide since the start of the pandemic that are directly attributable to household economic impacts associated with the pandemic.

To be clear, water affordability challenges predate COVID-19. There has long been tension between the need to invest in a reliable water supply to sustain our economy and quality of life and the need to maintain affordable access for all to this essential resource for life.

The need for water agencies to maintain vital infrastructure, pay fixed costs, and plan for the future remains  –  even during the most challenging times such as we are now experiencing.

Public water agencies have little discretion over their rates; they are required to set rates based on the cost of providing water. State law does not allow water agencies to take money from reserves and use it to pay off accrued debt by customers who are behind on their bills.

While there are no silver bullets, the San Diego County Water Authority (SDCWA) is in the forefront of seeking solutions that will help address the water bill debt problem created by the pandemic.

Here are four things that we are doing today to address the immediate financial emergency:

  1. Working with Congress and state legislators to pass state and federal relief funds for water agencies to offset COVID-attributable delinquent bills for water ratepayers who cannot afford to pay them. Federal COVID-relief money has been provided expressly for this purpose by Congress, and there could be more to come in additional relief packages now being negotiated on Capitol Hill. Similarly, we are advocating in Sacramento for the state to apply some of this year’s $25 billion projected surplus toward paying down water bill debt through the state budgeting process. We are partnering with cities and other water agencies, including the Los Angeles-based Metropolitan Water District (MWD) of Southern California, which represents all six counties of Southern California, to advance these initiatives.
  2. Advocating that MWD allow all retail water agencies in its service area to participate equally in its COVID-19 payment deferral program approved by its Board last month. MWD’s current program does not make benefits directly available to retail agencies of wholesale suppliers such as the Water Authority. We are asking MWD to make program benefits available to all retail water agencies, including those that serve our 3.3 million San Diego County residents.
  3. Seeking rate relief at MWD. Each year, MWD rate increases are among the largest drivers of rate increases that must ultimately be passed on to San Diego County water consumers by the Water Authority. MWD’s adopted 2021 rates increased the Water Authority’s costs by more than 9%, or $15.4 million. That increase represented 94% of the Water Authority’s total 4.8-4.9% rate increase that took effect January 1, at a time our ratepayers could least afford it. MWD’s next rate cycle is starting soon, and the Water Authority and its member agencies will once again be at the table seeking to control discretionary spending.
  4. Minimizing rate increases by the Water Authority for 2022. We controlled the 2021 rates through use of reserves, a hiring freeze and other steps. We are now looking ahead at how to continue to minimize rate impacts again next year, while continuing to take all steps necessary to ensure a reliable water supply and protect San Diego County water ratepayers.

Public water providers like the Water Authority and its 24 retail member agencies do not make a profit; every penny supports the water supply and delivery system that sustains our economy and quality of life.

It is our goal to be able to provide this essential resource to everyone who needs it at an affordable cost during the pandemic as well as in the future, and we are working on several fronts to make that happen.

Mona Rios is vice-chair of the Water Authority’s Board of Directors
and a National City C