Congress Must Support Water Utilities and Customers

Coronavirus relief legislation is needed to address significant revenue losses

By Charles Stevens 

The country’s approximately 50,000 drinking water and 15,000 wastewater utilities and their employees are considered “essential workers” and have the vital public responsibility of supplying the public with safe drinking water, wastewater service, and water recycling services every second of every day. Local water utilities have successfully provided the public with essential drinking water, sanitation service, and water recycling during the coronavirus pandemic. As Congress debates COVID-19 relief packages, the Water Environment Federation (WEF) and other leading water associations are calling for funding to help utilities rebound from the pandemic and invest in critical infrastructure, as well as to assist low-income customers pay bills.

As Congress debates COVID-19 relief packages, the Water Environment Federation and other leading water associations are calling for funding to help utilities rebound from the pandemic and invest in critical infrastructure, as well as to assist low-income customers pay bills.

Provide Funding to Help Local Water Utilities Rebound from the Pandemic and Invest in Critical Infrastructure

The coronavirus pandemic is having a severe impact on water and wastewater utilities across the country, with some systems suffering pandemic-induced revenue losses of millions of dollars, or more than 15%. These lost revenues mean local communities are less able to meet regulatory responsibilities and renew, repair, and sustain aging water infrastructure and treatment facilities.

To address these needs, the sector requests that local water and wastewater systems be made explicitly eligible to receive a portion of any state and local budgetary assistance that is included in future coronavirus response legislation. This funding should go beyond the aid delivered in the CARES Act, which covered some direct COVID-response costs but prohibited the use of funds to offset lost utility revenues. This utility revenue assistance could be particularly important to small and rural communities with limited administrative resources.

Help Low-income Customers Pay Their Water Bills

Each version of the HEROES Act approved by the House of Representatives this year contained language to establish a $1.5 billion Low-Income Household Drinking Water and Wastewater Assistance program, which would provide funds to utilities to offset water rates charged to low-income customers during the pandemic. Water systems report that delinquent residential water accounts have increased dramatically over the past several months, especially among low-income customers. This type of targeted assistance is vital to getting these vulnerable customers back on track while also providing a needed stream of operational funds to water and wastewater systems.

Avoid Efforts to Implement Broad Water Service Disconnection Moratoriums

Utilities understand it is critical to provide water service to communities during the pandemic. In fact, data from the American Water Works Association reports that more than 90% of drinking water systems temporarily suspended water service disconnections for nonpayment during the crisis voluntarily, and most are also halting late payment fees. Water and sewer costs are overwhelmingly covered by local ratepayers, meaning that forgiveness for unpaid bills or free service extended to some customers’ needs to be ultimately covered by other customers and most loss revenue will be written off by the utilities. If Congress is committed to ensuring water access for all, it must provide federal assistance. Federal legislation must not inadvertently hinder local drinking water and wastewater utilities’ ability to conduct temporary water service disconnections for infrastructure repair and maintenance activities

Local governments and locally governed water utilities continually make complex operational decisions concerning rates, treatment, disinfection, collection, safety management, financing, distribution, compliance and emergency supply to ensure the safety and reliability of the public water service. All of these decisions are premised on the ability to collect payment for water and wastewater service, so Congress must take care to not imperil utility finances and their ability to comply with complex state and federal regulatory requirements.

The Water Environment Federation and our colleagues across the sector are eager to continue to work to develop legislation that helps the nation —  and its drinking water, wastewater, and water recycling systems and ratepayers — recover from this pandemic.

Charles Stevens is the Operators Officer at KC Water and Chair of the Government Affairs Committee of the Water Environment Federation.

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