May 8, 2020 – To protect ourselves from the coronavirus, health officials repeatedly tell us to “wash our hands.” Many people can do that, but if you don’t have water in your home because it has been shut off by the water utility, you can’t perform this basic, life-saving function.
We’ve previously written about the need for governors around the country to issue executive orders banning residential water shutoffs and requiring reconnections of water service during the COVID-19 pandemic, and about the need for Congress to adopt a nationwide moratorium. Some states have acted. But other states, and some skeptics on Capitol Hill, are calling for specific data on water shutoffs before taking any action at all.
Unfortunately, water utilities are generally very reluctant to share specific data on how widespread shutoffs are, so we have to rely on limited self-reported information and data collected in a few states. This problem cries out for policy solutions to increase transparency. But it cannot be an excuse for failing to protect people’s health today. We are in the midst of a pandemic with no time to waste.
Despite the incomplete data, based on the examples gathered below from several states and cities, all signs point to millions of people nationwide at immediate risk of shutoff or already shutoff. The numbers are certain to grow as the economic crisis triggered by COVID-19 continues.
Only 14 states (plus DC and Puerto Rico) have established statewide water shutoff moratoria, but the vast majority of states have not. These moratoria are currently set to expire when a state’s health emergency declaration expires, or sooner—even though the economic crisis is certain to continue long after the worst of the health crisis has passed.
Critically, while the COVID-19 crisis is underscoring a new urgency to protect people from water shutoffs, this is not a new issue. Across the country, shutoffs have been happening for years, as water costs increase rapidly in response to the historic lack of investment in aging water infrastructure. While the pandemic demands immediate action to protect life-saving access to water during the pandemic, much more comprehensive solutions are urgently needed as we look ahead to a “recovery” phase from the pandemic, and beyond.
When it comes to shutoffs, data is the exception, not the rule.
We know of only one state, California, that requires all water systems to report on water shutoffs, and even then the reporting is only on an annual basis. There appear to be no statewide data in any other state that pinpoint the frequency of shutoffs in ordinary economic times, much less a national dataset showing the number of people disconnected or at risk of shutoff during the COVID-19 pandemic, when over 30 million people have filed for unemployment since mid-March.
The situation is not much better for utilities that are regulated by state utility commissions, which include a small minority of water systems (mostly privately-owned) and most of the nation’s electric and gas utilities. As noted by the National Consumer Law Center (NCLC), although these commissions could require comprehensive reporting, most do not, and “[u]tilities are generally not thrilled when advocates, regulators, or policymakers propose that comprehensive credit and collections data be collected and reported. They are perhaps understandably reticent about initiating a process whereby they trumpet to the world the number of their customers they shut off every month and that their…service is unaffordable to some.”
Available data suggest millions of people at risk today
The most recent, publicly-available data that we have been able to locate in various cities and states—from 2019 through the present—are summarized below. They paint a picture that compels our elected leaders to act now.
Current data from North Carolina show that over 219,000 people—or 2.1% of the state population—have been affected by actual or avoided water shutoffs during the COVID-19 pandemic in just the last month. If this percentage were typical of states around the country, 6.8 million people nationally would be affected already.
More specifically, about 4,600 people’s homes were shutoff for non-payment in North Carolina before Governor Cooper ordered a statewide shutoff moratorium on March 31. Since then, over 214,000 people have fallen behind on their water bills, but avoided shutoff because of the moratorium. Among the 227 water systems that have filed reports under the governor’s order, approximately 2,750 people remained without water as of April 25. Only about 40% of homes that were previously shutoff have been reconnected. (These numbers all assume 2.5 people per residential connection, which is the average household size for North Carolina.)
In February 2020, Bridge Magazine estimated that 9,500 households in Detroit lacked running water due to shutoffs for nonpayment. Other sources estimate 5,000 households in Flint are without running water for nonpayment. Given the history of shutoffs in these two cities, those numbers are, sadly, unsurprising. In 2019, Detroit shut off water to 23,000 homes. In fiscal year 2018, the City of Flint shut off the water to more than 7,615 households due to nonpayment. (Not coincidentally, Flint has among the highest water bills in the United States, nearly double the national average.)
With the COVID-19 crisis, Governor Whitmer issued an executive order requiring Michigan water utilities to pro-actively reconnect all occupied homes that were previously disconnected and to report on their progress. This was a significant step forward. Frontline advocates are still battling to make sure those reconnections happen promptly and safely.
California appears to be the only state that normally requires all water utilities to report on shutoffs. NRDC’s review of the 2019 data found that a minimum of 200,000 Californians experienced their water being shut off at least once last year. Indeed, a California study by Pacific Institute showed that while most utilities had a 4% disconnection rate or less, more than a third had disconnection rates from 7% to as high as 30%. There’s no data on shutoffs specifically during COVID-19, because utilities are only required to report once a year. Governor Newsom recognized the need to protect water service for all Californians during the COVID-19 crisis and declared a statewide shutoff moratorium, while requiring reconnections of certain accounts. However, despite its annual collection of information on water shutoffs, California has only a voluntary reporting process for shutoffs during the COVID-19 crisis, and current data collection lags far behind states like North Carolina and Michigan.
The Times Picayune reported that over 9,000 homes in New Orleans were disconnected from water service as of March 12, when the city’s Sewerage & Water Board suspended further disconnections and committed to restoring service to those previously shutoff. The water utility’s announcement came hours after a City Council committee voted unanimously to call on utilities to suspend shutoffs during the COVID-19 outbreak. Absent that voluntary commitment, the city would be free under state law to resume shutoffs.
Louisiana’s Public Service Commission ordered all utilities under its jurisdiction—that is, privately-owned water utilities—to suspend shutoffs, waive late fees, and offer “payment plan options.” However, as in most states, publicly-owned water systems serve the vast majority of the state and are not subject to utility commission jurisdiction.
An April 30 report in The Oklahoman states that overdue accounts at the city’s Utilities Department (which includes water, sewer, and trash service) have “soared in the past six weeks, from an average of 300 before the COVID-19 pandemic to nearly 11,000, leaving households more than $3.2 million behind on their bills. The average amount due is $315.” The city has suspended shutoffs during the COVID-19 crisis and says that it is “working to reconnect those previously disconnected.” However, in 2019—in normal economic times, and absent a moratorium—the city disconnected water to nearly 15,000 households (about 7% of the customer base) for nonpayment. In 2016, city data showed almost twice as many residential shutoffs.
Absent the city’s voluntary commitment, the Utilities Department would be free under state law to resume shutoffs. Oklahoma is one of 13 states where customers have no legal protection from disconnection of any utility service during COVID-19, including electric, gas, water, and telecommunications.
Buffalo, New York:
On April 2, 2020, advocates in Buffalo pointed out that from 2015-2019, there were 17,000 instances of water being shut off” and that around this time in 2019, about 125 to 150 occupied homes per month had their water shutoff.
Buffalo has voluntarily suspended water shutoffs during the COVID-19 crisis and is offering free reconnections. But the city is likely not reaching everyone because it has failed to proactively identity and contact people who were previously shut off. A coalition of 66 groups is calling on the city to do so.
Absent the city’s voluntary efforts, it would be free under state law to resume shutoffs. A Congressional staff report last week identified New York as one of 22 states that “have announced steps that partially restrict or discourage utility disconnections…but do not guarantee uninterrupted gas, electric and water service to all residents.”
The bottom line is this: We should absolutely talk about how to fill the data gaps on water shutoffs, through legislation and policies that require reporting by utilities. But, with the ongoing public health crisis and shutoff data at hand, the desperate need for both Congress and the states to ensure water service is undeniable.Joan Leary Matthews is Senior Attorney and Director, Urban Water Management, Water Initiatives, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program.Larry Levine, Senior Attorney, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program.NRDC works to safeguard the earth – its people, its plants and animals and the natural systems on which all life depends. www.nrdc.org