In March, the COVID-19 relief bill known as the CARES Act set aside $900 million to help Americans pay their utility bills. Earlier this week, a broad coalition of water agencies delivered a letter to Congress advocating for more funding. The letter, submitted Monday to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and other California Congressional delegates, argues that billions of federal dollars are still needed for water infrastructure maintenance and assistance with water bills.
The 70 groups that penned the letter are urging legislators to support the HEROES Act, a COVID-19 relief bill currently in the Senate that sets aside $1.5 billion for water bill assistance. They’re also calling for $4 billion in EPA grants to help households pay for water and wastewater service, $100 billion over five years for states’ drinking water revolving funds, emergency funding for water utilities in disadvantaged communities, and a moratorium on water shutoffs until after the COVID-19 pandemic.
“In this time of crisis, we have come together to urge the California Congressional Delegation to include funding for urgent water infrastructure and water affordability needs as part of the next federal stimulus package or other pending Congressional actions,” the letter reads.
The National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association estimates the $900 million already distributed through the CARES Act will help approximately three million families pay for utilities, likely falling far short of the nearly 20 million Americans who lost their jobs during the worst period of unemployment since the Great Depression.
At issue isn’t just Americans’ ability to afford water bills, says Jonathan Nelson, policy director of the non-profit advocacy organization Community Water Center. With a “meaningful percentage of your ratepayer base out of work or losing their jobs and they’re unable to pay their water bills,” he says, “that could have real impacts if you’re a small water system that’s already operating on the margins.” Many water systems, particularly in tiny, rural communities, struggled to keep their water systems in operation even before the pandemic.
The letter represents a consensus from an unusually broad coalition of water groups, ranging from environmental justice organizations like Nelson’s to business and trade groups like the California Chamber of Commerce and Western United Dairymen. Such wide-reaching support, Nelson says, reflects how important water is, “not only as part of our country’s public health response, but also reflects the fact that water can be an engine of economic recovery.”