Amid growing concerns about water affordability, the Trump administration recently cleared the way for a multibillion-dollar tunnels project that would send water from the Northern California to the southern part of the state. If Southern California leaders approve the tunnels, all Angelenos—including those already struggling to pay their water bills—could end up paying higher water fees to subsidize water costs for wealthy agricultural interests. The tunnels project—with strong backing from California Governor Jerry Brown— would exacerbate the water affordability crisis looming over Los Angeles County.
Water Shutoffs in Three Los Angeles County Systems
Over the last two years alone, tens of thousands of county residents have experienced water shutoffs, according to information obtained by Food & Water Watch under the California Public Records Act. In 2015 and 2016, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and the cities of Long Beach and South Gate shut off water to more than 20,000 households for nonpayment affecting as many as 65,000 people.
The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, Long Beach and South Gate provide concerning examples. In total, these three utilities shut off 20,239 households in 2015 and 2016. In 2016 alone, more than 9,000 households lost water service for unpaid water bills – affecting an estimated 30,000 people.
Most strikingly, the small city of South Gate shut off about one in five households— 22.8 percent of residential customers in 2015 and 18.8 percent of residential customers in 2016. By comparison, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which provides service to four million Angelenos, shut off about one percent of residential customers in 2015 and 2016, and Long Beach shut off two percent of its residential customers in 2016 and 4.6 percent in 2015.
Although the rates of poverty in the three cities are all about 20 percent, South Gate is 95 percent Latino, while Long Beach is 40 percent and Los Angeles City is 49 percent Latino. This has local water advocates concerned that Latino communities could be disproportionately affected by shutoffs. Disparities in access to safe and affordable water service in other parts of the country. A study by We the People of Detroit found that water shutoffs in Detroit were targeted at and dismantling African American communities.
Notably, privately owned systems refused to provide Food & Water Watch with information about water shutoffs. A study of 115 community water systems in Los Angeles County found considerably higher water prices in privately-owned systems than public systems. The average private system charged a typical household $1,065 a year while an average municipal system charged $706. These higher bills in private water systems, make it likely that the communities they serve are even more heavily impacted by water service cutoffs.
The Water Affordability Challenge
The consequences are dire. Beyond water shutoffs, unaffordable water bills can also lead to tax sales, evictions, separated families and dismantled communities.
The California Department of Public Health considers water service charges to be unaffordable if they consume more than 1.5 percent of a household’s income. The 2015 Los Angeles Community Water Systems Atlas found that while the average cost of water service in the county was considered affordable, more than three-quarters of water systems had average costs above this threshold. Most of the water systems charging unaffordable rates were owned by the large investor-owned utilities: Golden State Water Company and California Water Service Company.
Disconnecting thousands of households also poses a public health threat for the entire community. Without running water, families do not have water to drink, bathe, cook food, wash their hands or flush their toilets.
Confronted with serious affordability challenges, local governments and water agencies need to make wise investments that support local public water solutions, that benefit low income communities and create good local jobs. The Delta tunnels project – referred to as the California WaterFix by its promotors– will do none of these things. It is a boondoggle that will burden households across Southern California.
The Flawed ‘WaterFix’
The Delta tunnels project would be the most expensive water project in California history. The decades-old proposal, recently rebranded as the California WaterFix, involves building two 30-mile tunnels to take water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and send it to Central and Southern California.
While the state estimates that construction costs will be about $16 billion, the final cost of project including financing could reach $67 billion. Even in the best-case scenario, a University of the Pacific professor has found that the project will provide only 39 cents of benefit for every dollar of cost.
The tunnels would raise water rates across Southern California. According to a 2012 independent analysis by EcoNorthwest, customers of Los Angeles Department of Water and Power could see an increase in their annual bills of up to $393 to pay for the tunnels.
In September, the 38 members of the board of directors for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California are scheduled to vote on the WaterFix. These members represent 26 different local governments and water agencies, including the city of Los Angeles, the city of Long Beach and the Central Basin Municipal Water District, which provides water to South Gate.
A National Problem
Los Angeles County is not the only city facing a looming water affordability crisis. Without new federal support, communities across the country are having to increase water rates to pay for growing infrastructure needs. These rate hikes, combined with growing income inequality and regressive billing practices, are leaving poor and working families with a heavy burden. A recent Michigan State University study found that, nationwide, 12 percent of households already cannot afford water service bills and within five years more than a third households could be unable to afford their water bills.
It’s the job of local governments to ensure that every person in Los Angeles County has access to affordable water service.
Los Angeles, Long Beach, other cities and local water agencies should reject the Delta Tunnels amid growing concerns about water affordability, say local water advocates. City and County leaders cannot justify wasting public money on a scheme that would force residents to subsidize water needs of wealthy agricultural interests.
Local governments in Los Angeles County instead should focus on investing in local water solutions — including storm water capture and groundwater recharge — to create good local jobs with direct benefits to their communities.
Cutting water service is an affront to human dignity that utilities should be forbidden from carrying out. In 2014, after visiting Detroit, UN officials explained: “When people are genuinely unable to pay the bill, it is the State’s obligation to provide urgent measures, including financial assistance, a specially low tariff or subsidies, to ensure access to essential water and sanitation for all. Not doing so amounts to a human rights violation.”