As the Delta variant continues to spread across the country, research published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine finds that water shutoff moratoria are an important public health tool to prevent the spread of disease.
Since March 2020, 34 states took action to limit water shutoffs during the pandemic, and 20 of these states imposed comprehensive moratoria that apply to all water systems. The research found that these statewide protections prevented Covid infections and deaths.
Despite the Delta wave increasing cases and hospitalizations across the country, nearly all of these shutoff protections have expired. Only California, New Jersey and Washington have comprehensive moratoria still in place, and both California’s and Washington’s moratoria expire at the end of the month. The study found that states that had instituted policies to prevent water shutoffs had significantly lower growth rates for COVID infections and deaths.
“This research clearly shows us that the pain and suffering caused by COVID pandemic was exacerbated by political leaders who failed to take action to keep the water flowing for struggling families,“ said Food & Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah Hauter. “These findings should move us to fight even harder for water justice everywhere: Debt forgiveness with a moratorium on shutoffs through the Maintaining Access to Essential Services Act and a massive federal investment in our public water infrastructure. Long-term, Congress must pass the WATER Act to invest in communities, promote climate resilience, and ensure public water for all.”
“Our model uses more than 12 thousand data points to capture the relationship between days when a state had a moratorium in place and the level of COVID-19 infection and deaths,” said Dr. Xue Zhang, Post-Doctoral Associate in the Departments of City and Regional Planning and Global Development at Cornell. “Using modeling typical of other public health studies, we find states with moratoria had lower infection and death growth rates. We hope what we learned from the pandemic can contribute to universal access to water in the future.”
“Access to water is absolutely critical during the pandemic,” said Dr. Mildred E. Warner, Professor of City and Regional Planning and Global Development at Cornell University. “This study shows the importance of a national standard for access to water, especially for low-income households. The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed so many structural inequities in our society, and access to drinking water is one that demands our attention.”
The patchwork nature of local and statewide moratoria policies left millions of people vulnerable to losing service. At the peak of protection, in June 2020, 34 states had imposed either a full or partial moratorium on water shutoffs, protecting nearly 247 million people. But by the end of 2020, just 12 states had a moratorium in place, and 65 percent of the country — 211 million people — were not covered. This total included 75 million people of color and 2.6 million households in the lowest income quintile, which are the households most at risk of having their service shut off.
Congress has provided limited support for water access in the infrastructure and budget reconciliation legislation. Although the House Energy & Commerce Committee seeks an additional $500 million in the federal budget to the new Low Income Household Water Assistance Program, there are no shutoff protections attached to the funding. Advocates continue to call for the passage of the Maintaining Access to Essential Services Act, from Sen. Jeff Merkley and Rep. Rashida Tlaib, to eliminate utility debt accrued during the moratoria and extend shutoff protections through the recovery period.