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Federal cash arrives for San Diegans drowning in water bills as shutoffs resume

Thousands of San Diegans are struggling to pay their water bills as shutoffs resume across much of the state. Experts fear the burden will only get worse as the cost of water continues to soar, driven in part by ongoing historic drought.

However, federal emergency cash is now providing temporary relief for many low-income residents — up to $2,000 for unpaid water bills.

Aurora Luna, who lives with her 100-year-old mother in a small apartment building in Chula Vista, recently applied. The family owed $690 in back charges and has faced the threat of having their water turned off.

“It’s too much. Why is it so much?” she said of her bill that’s typically about $190 every two months. “I don’t know how I’m going to do it.”

Last week, she put in an application for the emergency relief program at the Metropolitan Area Advisory Committee on Anti-Poverty of San Diego County, or MAAC, on Third Avenue in Chula Vista.

Monica Reyes, an intake specialist with the nonprofit, guided Luna through the online process, asking her several questions, such as her monthly income and, “Do you have an email?”

“I don’t use computers,” said the 61-year-old. “That’s why I’m here.”

Dishes stack up in the kitchen of a San Diego family on Oct 5, 2021. They, as many families in California, do their best to conserve water, such as waiting to do a full load of laundry and dishes, but despite their efforts have found themselves behind on their water bill.

(Ana Ramirez/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The recently launched Low-Income Household Water Assistance Program is slated to run through August. California is paying for the program with a one-time injection of $116 million from the federal government.

Eligibility is determined by income. For example, a family of four making up to $4,932.17 a month qualifies for the program. Renters whose water bills are included in their lease are also eligible.

The regional assistance effort was coordinated by the San Diego County Water Authority, MAAC and Campesinos Unidos. Residents can find the provider for their neighborhood through the state’s website at csd.ca.gov.

While the emergency relief payments will help many Californians, experts have warned that a long-term assistance program for low-income residents is increasingly needed.

“This was an innovated Band-Aid,” said Greg Pierce, director of UCLA’s Human Right to Water Solutions Lab. “We’ve never paid for (water) debt before, but the idea that that was enough is ridiculous.”

Unlike for electricity bills, there are few programs that help people struggling with the cost of water. Last month, Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed a long-awaited bill that would’ve created such a state program, saying the proposal didn’t identify “sustainable, ongoing funding.”

Pierce, who’s worked closely with the state to draft proposals for low-income aid, believes such a program will eventually come to fruition. But in the meantime, he said, the cost of water is rising faster than many people can keep up with.

“It’s grim,” he said. “This was a problem before COVID. It’s only going to be more of a problem in the future.”

In California, the average price for a modest 600 cubic feet — roughly 150 gallons a day for a month — was $64 in 2020, according to the state’s most recent Drinking Water Needs Assessment. That’s up 56 percent from an estimated $41 in 2014, according to a report by UCLA and state water regulators.

Reverse osmosis membranes work to desalinate water at the Poseidon plant in Carlsbad.

Reverse osmosis membranes work to desalinate water at the Poseidon plant in Carlsbad. Projects such as desalination are adding to the expense of water in the region.

(Misael Virgen/ The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Such data is limited as the state has only started mandating that water districts report rate information in the last few years. However, experts have said the trajectory is clear given the need to upgrade aging pipes and other infrastructure as well as invest in costly drought-proof technologies such as desalination or recycling.

While shutoff moratoriums during the pandemic allowed bills to mount, inflation has recently exacerbated the situation as payments come due. The rising cost of food, gas, electricity and other basic necessities has put many people in a tough spot.

An estimated 1.6 million Californians were late on their water bills as of January, said Attorney General Rob Bonta during a press conference on Wednesday.

“Many families here in our state can’t pour a glass of water, can’t wash their hands, can’t even flush their toilets, all because they can’t make their water payments,” he said.

Unpaid water bills peaked in late 2021 before the state’s moratorium on shutoffs expired and President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan Act provided $985 million to cover unpaid water and wastewater charges related to the pandemic.

That money erased a significant amount of debt by dispatching payments directly to local water agencies. However, many people remained behind on their bills, which triggered the most recent program requiring people to apply individually for emergency relief.

For example, the Sweetwater Authority — which serves National City, western Chula Vista and Bonita — had roughly $1.4 million in unpaid bills last year but received only $532,000 in direct relief funding. After resuming the threat of shutoffs this year, the agency still had more than $500,000 in unpaid water charges as of October.

The Otay Water District — which services southeastern parts of the county — also got about half a million dollars to cancel customer debt. The agency, which resumed shutoffs in February, is still carrying about $325,000 in delinquent bills on 1,775 accounts.

The Helix Water District — which services La Mesa, Lemon Grove and El Cajon — received about $518,000 in pandemic relief but still had nearly $125,000 in unpaid bills as of this month. The agency resumed water shutoffs in March, closing 42 accounts and sending about $16,500 to collections.

Meanwhile, the city of San Diego had nearly $71 million in unpaid water bills as of this month, including for sewer, stormwater and drinking water services. The agency, which received $30 million in emergency federal funding, said it has yet to resume shutoffs.

More affluent communities have absorbed the rising cost of water by simply using less. But that’s not an option for many low-income residents.

Sweetwater Authority General Manager Carlos Quintero said his customers, about 45 percent of whom are considered economically disadvantaged, are already using the bare minimum amount of water.

In fact, the agency had some of the lowest water use in California this summer at around 64 gallons a person per day, according to data collected by the state. By comparison, residents in the Santa Fe Irrigation District, which serves Rancho Santa Fe and Solana Beach, used a daily average of more than 486 gallons a person.

“It just gets to the point of how much more water can we save?” Quintero asked.

Advocates are now hoping that the state’s Low-Income Household Water Assistance Program will pay for these remaining delinquent bills, especially as the state’s high cost of living continues to burden its most vulnerable residents.

Increasingly people are being forced to choose between paying for basic necessities like food, water and transportation, said Valerie Hash, manager of MAAC’s water assistance program.

“People are coming in with water bills that are more than $3,000,” she said. “They have to make choices. ‘Do I pay for medicine? Do I pay for my vehicle?’ With inflation, you go to the grocery store and it hits hard.”

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