A California Water Crisis, Again

           On October 30, 2020, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) and the State Water Resources Control Board hosted a joint workshop for water utilities and assorted consumer advocacy groups to address water affordability and operational challenges aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic. (The workshop was held pursuant to Rulemaking 17-06-024: Water Affordability During COVID-19.) Since January 2020, the number of customers behind on their water bills has steadily risen in the following months up until the time of this workshop. This has not been a surprise due to the massive unemployment caused by COVID-19.

            Unfortunately, demand and competition for water has remained undiminished, even as California continues to face rising water shortage challenges. People still need to water their lawns, flush their toilets, and grow their food. Cultural differences between northern and southern California, priority disagreements between urban and agricultural interests, and an increasingly lopsided curve of demand and supply from a growing population in an area greatly affected by climate change have exacerbated the problems. And the icing on the cake in solving these water use tensions is Article X, section 2 of the California Constitution which declares that all Californians have a constitutional right to water.

            As a result, consumers using the water system without the ability to pay for it have aggravated a financially strained system. As of 2014, California was ranked as the number 1 state in need of water infrastructure repair. With customers unable to pay their bills, how can we tackle this problem? How can a system without the ability to repair itself continue to deliver safe drinking water? As an additional layer to this quandary, there are over 100 investor-owned water utilities in the CPUC’s jurisdiction, as compared to just a handful of gas or electric utilities. With each water utility bringing its own unique and complex problems to the table, ensuring the supply of safe and affordable drinking water presents a problem far more complex than electric power distribution.

            As a short-term measure, the CPUC has imposed emergency protection for consumers to avoid disconnection due to unpaid bills. Unfortunately for many, the CPUC only oversees investor-owned utilities, and thus the CPUC measure only applies to a limited number of people in the state. Others will need to find alternative means of keeping their water on. More importantly, neither water shut-offs for delinquent customers nor emergency measures preventing disconnection due to unpaid bills address the long-terms financial challenges for water utilities with respect to maintaining an aging water infrastructure, which continues to depreciate. At this point, we must put a Band-Aid on the system and float it forward, so to speak, as we continue to discuss what equitable solutions we can offer to enforce this constitutional right for California residents.

Wesley Clark

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