A Senate bill that would create a water rate assistance fund for low-income rate payers experiencing economic hardship is to go in front of another difficult Senate committee soon following passage of the bill in the Senate Energy, Utilities and Communications committee earlier this week.
Senate Bill 222, authored by Senator Bill Dodd (D-Napa), would create the Water Rate Assistance Fund, a program that would give money to low-income or economically-hurt ratepayers. The Fund, which would be funded directly from the state treasury, would specifically give direct water bill assistance, water bill credits, water crisis assistance, affordability assistance, and technical assistance to small public water systems. SB 222, which would be fully implemented by January 2023 would also institute a way to get ratepayers off of the program by creating a transitioning process, as well as a verification process to make sure everyone paying the lowered rate is eligible.
Senator Dodd wrote the bill to provide water access and affordability for low-income ratepayers and others struggling with water bills, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and economic downturn. Also affecting his decision to write the bill was recent survey data from the State Water Resources Control Board showing that water debt in the state was over $1 billion, with 12% of all households currently being behind their water bills and my lose their service soon.
“All Californians must have access to water, regardless of their income level or economic status,” said Senator Dodd earlier this week. “Many people are at risk of being denied this essential service, in part because of rising water rates but also because the pandemic has left so many people unemployed. My legislation will ensure low-income customers aren’t cut off and get the financial help they need to keep the water turned for their families.”
SB 222 has enjoyed high amounts of support, with Monday’s committee vote of 11-2 showing that most Democrats are behind the bill. Many water and water advocacy groups, such as the Community Water Center, Clean Water Action and the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, have also backed the bill, adding more total support for the bill.
Drought concerns, water misuse fuel opposition against SB 222
However, a small but vocal group of lawmakers and citizens groups have come out against SB 222, with many opposing the use of taxpayer money to subsidize water bills, and many others coming out against the bill due to worry over lawmakers favoring city residents over farmers as drought conditions return to California.
“A lot of us would love to see just how much water is being wasted by people struggling with bills,” said Timothy Crane, a water use consultant n rural areas of several western states, to the Globe. “If that 12% figure is true, how many are misusing water to water large lawns or to fill pools? For lower-income residents, how much is going to unnecessary things in apartments? And look at how much is wasted by car washing and other things.
“If you can’t afford it, don’t use it more than necessary. This bill has the potential to award misuse while ignoring the need for water in rural areas, especially for farms. That’s unacceptable. We need to comprehensively see where a lot of the waste is for the 12% that is currently finding it difficult to pay the bills and advise on ways of using less before we start giving breaks on water bills for them. It’s common sense, and doubles as a way to help preserve water in case of drought. But you don’t see this happening.”
SB 222 is due to be heard next in the Senate Environmental Quality committee in the next few weeks.