coronavirus pandemic

Tens of Thousands of San Diegans Are in Debt Over Their Water Bills

NBC 7 Responds looked at the growing problem and how utilities are trying to help those in need

NBC Universal, Inc.

The coronavirus pandemic shook the economy of the United States and San Diego.

More than 100,000 people in San Diego County lost their jobs last year, and many have made tough choices financially. That's led, in part, to nearly a billion dollars in statewide water-bill debt, according to a new report from the state water board.

"Folks are trying to scrape by and make ends meet," said Allen Carlisle, the CEO & general manager of Padre Dam Municipal Water District. "The first things on our minds are those families who are struggling and how do we try to help them?"

An executive order signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom in April protects customers who cannot pay their water bills.

"Twelve percent of the state's population [owe] this $1 billion of utility debt," said Glenn Farrel, director of government relations at the San Diego County Water Authority. "That's a lot of people living at the edge."

Farrel estimates that there is $50 million of water bill debt locally due to COVID-19. Numbers reported to the state by water districts in San Diego show almost 70,000 accounts were delinquent as of October 2020.

"We have a major problem," said Farrel.

There are 24 members of the SDCWA, including the Padre Dam Municipal Water District, which serves a large portion of East County, from Alpine to El Cajon. Carlisle said only 0.5% of water bills are delinquent typically, but during the pandemic, that figure has risen to 3.4%.

"It's still low, but six times the norm," Carlisle said. "That equals $600,000 in revenue that the district hasn't received as a result of these delinquencies."

Other parts of the county have been hit even harder.

"We're concerned about the debt of our customers," said Tish Berge, the general manager of the Sweetwater Authority. "We are financially sound. Our budget can take care of the current situation."

Berge said that, as of October 2020, the Sweetwater Authority had a 20% delinquency rate, compared to 13% before the pandemic began.

San Diego's Public Utilities Department told NBC 7 it has not shut off water to any customer because of overdue bills since March of 2018. At the end of 2019, delinquent accounts owed the department more than $13.5 million. By November of 2020, that number had ballooned to more than $37.7 million.

San Diego's PUD said it is still looking at what types of state and federal assistance might be available to it and its customers: "With the passage of federal coronavirus relief legislation at the end of last year, the city is evaluating options to address the delinquent accounts in ways that respect the financial challenges of our customers in accordance with the parameters of relief programs that are in the process of being set up."

Carlisle said that there are a number of laws that prevent some types of assistance. For instance, he said, a state law prohibits a subsidy for water customers.

"We will work with the customers, get them on payment plans, keep in communication," Carlisle said. "We want to assure them that we are on their side, and we want to work through this with them."

Farrel said water departments are looking at other ways to cut costs to reduce the impact of delinquent bills.

"Looking at project deferrals and deferred maintenance, and other impacts associated with that," Farrel said. "Everyone is trying to flatten their rate."

Farrel said he thinks this could lead to hiring freezes at water departments if there isn't a solution quickly. Currently, he's working with state lawmakers to get help for local water districts and their customers. He said that customers falling behind on their water bills should reach out to the district.

"Their first, second and third options are to try and work with their customers," Farrel said.

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