California has been blessed with the distinction of being home to some of the richest and the poorest income-earning Americans, according to a 2015 report by the Social Science Research Council. This stark division of wealth between the extravagantly rich and the destitute is displayed vividly in how the state’s residents consume water. On the one hand, some estate owners have been publicly shamed for watering their lawns during extreme drought with thousands of gallons per day – sometimes five or 10 times the average household rate. While other Californians live in communities where there isn’t enough water or the water isn’t safe to drink.
But it’s not just access to water that’s a problem, it’s also the cost. Many California residents, in both small towns and big cities, are struggling to keep up with the rising price of water. The State Water Resources Control Board has been tasked with coming up with a plan to tackle affordability, but it’s been slow going.
Max Gomberg, the State Water Resources Control Board’s climate and conservation manager, says the price of water has increased at six times the rate of inflation across the state. Gomberg’s agency is currently drafting a set of recommendations that will help the state legislature develop a financial assistance program for residents with soaring water rates. The water board, which already missed a February 1 deadline on the task, aims to submit the guidelines this year, though Gomberg says the legislature is not required to follow them.
Water prices are rising in California for a variety of reasons. For one thing, much of the state is either a desert or is dominated by an arid Mediterranean climate, so water is naturally scarce. Because water must often be obtained from distant sources, large infrastructure projects are necessary – and much of this infrastructure is aging. Gomberg says many water agencies are catching up on deferred maintenance of pipes, pumps and wells and passing associated costs on to their customers. In some districts, water has become contaminated and must be treated – another cost that gets distributed through residential water bills.
“But one of the big drivers is climate change,” Gomberg says. “Climate change is making hydrology more variable. We’re having longer droughts and warmer hot spells. Water districts that could once rely on rain and reliable groundwater reserves no longer can.”
In the small San Joaquin Valley communities of Cantua Creek and El Porvenir, hundreds of residents are paying above-average rates for water that they cannot even safely drink. It’s a situation that Erica Fernandez Zamora, a policy advocate with the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, says violates the California Human Right to Water law of 2012, which states that, “every human being has the right to safe, clean, affordable and accessible water.”
Cantua Creek and El Porvenir both receive water from Fresno County via Westlands Water District, a wealthy agricultural region that obtains water from the federal Central Valley Project run by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The 2012–16 drought affected supplies, forcing Westlands to pay more. In turn, the 600 residents of Cantua Creek and El Porvenir were faced with rate increases, which the communities of mostly low-income farm workers didn’t believe they could pay. Rates were $110 a month in El Porvenir and $72 a month in Cantua Creek for water that the state deemed unsafe. Facing water shutoffs, the state stepped in with emergency funds to reduce costs and provide bottled water, but the grants expire this spring.
“We’re trying to find permanent solutions for these people,” Zamora says.
But the San Joaquin Valley isn’t the only area where water affordability is a problem.
According to the water news agency Circle of Blue, between 2010 and 2017 water rates in Los Angeles jumped 71 percent. The biggest increase was for households of four that used 100 gallons per capita a day, which saw monthly water bills increase from $58.49 to $100.14. In San Francisco water rates increased 119–127 percent (depending on usage) during the same period. Bills increased from $86.31 to $195.86 a month for a household of four using 150 gallons per person a day. For those using only 50 gallons per person a day, rates jumped $30.63 to $67.07. Both cities have undertaken costly infrastructure upgrades.
Even in relatively affluent smaller communities, the cost of water has escalated, too. The wine country town of St. Helena in the Napa Valley, which is grappling with infrastructure upgrades, is one example.
“Our rates are now two-and-a-half times those in the city of Napa,” says Geoff Ellsworth, a member of the St. Helena City Council.
State senator Bill Dodd, a Democrat from Napa, recently introduced legislation that would make it more difficult for utilities to abruptly discontinue service for customers unable to pay their water bills. Currently, he says, cell-phone companies face tighter restrictions in cutting off services than do water agencies.
The water board reports that the state spends more than $2.5 billion per year to aid low-income residents with gas, electric and telecommunication services, but more than half the state’s residents have a water provider that doesn’t offer rate assistance for low-income customers.
Dodd’s proposed law, Senate Bill 998, seeks to model California’s water deliveries more like electricity and phone services, where failure to pay bills may result in soft enforcement – first warnings, followed by opportunities to appeal and probably fines. Only as a last resort, he explains, do phone and electricity providers terminate service.
But Dodd says that with water service, missing a due date on a payment can mean dry taps in just days. His proposed law would prohibit service cuts for at least 60 days if a customer fails to pay a bill. It would require advanced written warning that service might be discontinued and would prohibit cutting of water supplies for the ill or elderly if a local health agency determines doing so would seriously threaten their health.
The bill, which is currently pending in the Senate, would also provide clear instructions to help people in restoring discontinued service and would waive reconnection fees for low-income households.
Dodd says many of the poorest Californians are paying as much as a fifth of their incomes for water. In the East Bay Municipal Utility District alone, which provides drinking water for 1.4 million people, household water deliveries were interrupted for more than 8,000 residences in 2015 due to unpaid bills, according to a press release from his office. In July 2017, the utility’s board voted to increase rates 19 percent over two years.
California is served by more than 400 large public water agencies. Additionally, many people receive water from private wells or small water systems. This decentralized system makes providing water for all in an equitable way a difficult task.
When it comes to the state’s Right to Water law, “It’s great to have this right written on paper, but it’s more important to have that right realized,” says Dodd.