An update on COVID-19 water shutoff moratoriums
Wednesday 29 July 2020
Since March 2020, only 15 states and the District of Columbia have issued statewide moratoriums on water shutoffs in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Statewide moratoriums cover customers receiving water services from both public and private utilities.
Even though the number of COVID-19 cases is on the rise, states are allowing their water shutoff moratoriums to expire. One third of statewide moratoriums have already expired, and an additional third of moratoriums are set to expire by early August. Without immediate action, it is likely that by mid-August only six states and the District of Columbia will have statewide protections against water shutoffs.
These moratoriums have proved vital in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic and in protecting residents who face economic hardship as a result of the impacts from COVID-19. Despite their importance, states with pre-existing moratoriums have put off extending these protections. Only two additional states have taken statewide action since March to halt water shutoffs. This Blue Paper provides an update on the status of state-wide water shutoff moratoriums. Our findings only reinforce our conclusion that the Federal government and state governments must establish or extend comprehensive statewide water shutoff moratoriums.
WHAT WE LOOKED AT
This Blue Paper provides an update on the status of statewide water shutoff moratoriums. The paper reviews the status of moratoriums analyzed in our The COVID-Water Disconnect, the initial Blue Paper on this topic, and examines two new statewide moratoriums. We also considered recent unemployment data, using that as a simple way to identify states where households are likely to be facing newly unaffordable bills. We considered only statewide moratoriums that act on all utilities, both public and investor-owned, and which create mandatory, not voluntary, obligations.
Fifteen states and the District of Columbia have issued statewide moratoriums on water shutoff. Only eleven moratoriums remain.
Fifteen states--California, Delaware, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Washington and Wisconsin--and the District of Columbia have issued statewide moratoriums on water shutoffs since January 2020. The expiration date, duration, and protections provided by the statewide moratoriums differ substantially from state-to-state.
As of the publication of this Blue Paper, one-third of the statewide moratoriums that were originally issued have expired. Four states’ moratoriums, Delaware, Kansas, Mississippi, and Montana, expired in May; Ohio’s moratorium was terminated by the governor in early July.
The moratorium in Wisconsin was recently reinstated after having been terminated in June. Originally, the moratorium issued by the Wisconsin Public Service Commission (PSC) was to apply "during the public health emergency and until further order of the Commission." On June 11, 2020 the PSC unanimously voted to lift the temporary statewide moratorium on utility disconnections for nonpayment. Customers were encouraged to set up payment plans, and the PSC allowed the utilities to start sending disconnection notices starting July 15 if full payment was not received or a payment plan was put in place. The first disconnections could not be executed until 25 July. Utilities were required to postpone disconnections for 21 days where a resident had tested positive for COVID-19, and this medical postponement had to be extended if the resident was still under quarantine. In addition to the disconnections, utilities were also authorized to start charging late payment fees on debts incurred after July 15. This shift was short-lived, as in light of the increasing number of COVID-19 cases the PSC voted on July 23 to reinstate the statewide water shutoff moratorium until September 1.
While the statewide water shutoff moratorium in Delaware expired on May 15, 2020, the governor issued a twenty-third modification of the State of Emergency on June 30 that required every water and wastewater public utility, not-for-profit utility, and municipal utility to, at a minimum, extend a four-month payment plan for past due accounts to customers that indicate they have been affected by the impacts of COVID-19. The order stated that utilities cannot apply eligibility criteria, but may request proof of COVID impact.
In Ohio, the generous time frame set forth in the original moratorium was shortened. On March 31, 2020, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a statewide water shutoff moratorium that was to extend for the duration of the State of Emergency, but no later than December 1. However, the Ohio EPA revoked the moratorium, effective Friday, July 10, 2020.
Four more moratoriums will expire within the next two weeks without additional action. Indiana, Maryland, North Carolina, and Washington are set to allow their moratoriums to expire within the last days of July or the first few days of August. Despite the ongoing pandemic, the higher rates of unemployment, and the critical role that water plays in reducing exposure, states continue to allow their statewide water shutoff moratoriums to expire.
Two additional states have issued moratoriums on water shutoffs during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since the publication of our first Blue Paper, The COVID-Water Disconnect, two additional states--Kentucky and New York--have issued statewide moratoriums on water shutoffs in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear issued an Executive Order placing a moratorium on all utility disconnections, including water and wastewater services. While the moratorium does not require that service be restored to homes who had been disconnected prior to or during the pandemic, the moratorium does require that utilities waive the assessment of late payment fees for the duration of the State of Emergency. Kentucky’s moratorium also does not establish any post-moratorium grace period for water customers.
To place a moratorium on water shutoffs, the New York legislature amended the Public Service Law, with the amendments signed into law by Governor Andrew Cuomo on June 17, 2020. Under the revised law, no utility corporation or municipality can disconnect water services to any residential customer for the nonpayment of an overdue charge for the duration of the COVID-19 state of emergency. Furthermore, utilities must restore residential services within 48 hours if the service was disconnected during the COVID-19 state of emergency. Once the state of emergency has been lifted or expires, for a period of 180 days, no utility corporation or municipality can terminate residential services because of defaulted payment agreements or arrears owed to the utility when the customer has experienced a change in financial circumstances as a result of COVID. Utilities must provide residential customers with the right to enter into or renegotiate a deferred payment agreement without requiring down payments or the payment of accrued late fees or penalties.
While both states place a moratorium on water shutoffs for the duration of the State-level states of emergency, New York’s moratorium provides greater protection once the emergency has ended.
Only two of the five states with the highest unemployment rate have issued statewide water shutoff moratoriums.
Of the five states with the highest unemployment rates as of June 2020, only two states have issued statewide water shutoff moratoriums. The five states with the highest unemployment rate include California, Nevada, New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts with unemployment rates ranging between 17.4% and 14.9%. These states also have 32% to 23% of their populations living under 200% of the Federal Poverty Line (FPL). Of these states, only California and New York have issued statewide water shutoff moratoriums. In Nevada, neither the State nor the Public Utilities Commission have issued a water shutoff moratorium. The Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities issued a water shutoff moratorium in March 2020. However, this moratorium is only applicable to investor-owned utilities, not public utilities. Lastly, New Jersey, as discussed in the previous paper, secured a voluntary statewide water shutoff moratorium through voluntary commitments from water utilities. However, these commitments can be withdrawn at any time. Therefore, where the greatest percentages of the population are experiencing economic hardship, the protections are incomplete or unpredictable.
Protections for access to water are disappearing even as COVID-19 cases rise and unemployment rates remain at historic highs. Despite an increasing number of cases of COVID-19, water shutoff moratoriums are being allowed to expire; states who did not issue moratoriums in March have not changed their positions. Of the 50 states and DC, 35 states have never issued a statewide, comprehensive moratorium on water shutoffs since the onset of the pandemic. Of the 15 states who have issued statewide water shutoff moratoriums, five moratoriums have expired and four more are set to expire by the beginning of August.
By mid-August, only six states and the District of Columbia will continue to ensure that their residents have access to water, even if COVID has affected their ability to pay. Since the first wave of moratoriums issued in March, only two additional states have issued statewide moratoriums. As a result, many of the most vulnerable across the United States remain unprotected despite growing public health risks and economic uncertainty.
If this inaction continues, the Federal government must enact a country-wide moratorium on water shutoffs that applies to all utilities, public and private. Water is essential to human health and everyone, in spite of ability or inability to pay, must have uninterrupted access to water during this pandemic. To prevent the dire economic situation for many families from getting worse, there must also be a reasonable opportunity to repay water debt after the pandemic has subsided. Without these protections, water debt will compound the pandemic’s harm long after the virus has been contained.
*Based on data collected as of July 24, 2020.
**With special thanks to our Summer Policy Intern, William Wallock, rising junior at the the University of Texas, Austin, for his research assistance.