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Alarmed over bottled water scarcity, some calling for statewide ban on water shut-offs

Flickr/Paul Hudson

4/2/20 UPDATE: On Thursday, California's governor signed an executive order directing a statewide moratorium on water shutoffs. 

Over a dozen environmental justice organizations are asking for an immediate statewide moratorium on water shutoffs, and reconnections for people whose water service was cut off before the pandemic. Private water companies have already taken those steps, due to state regulator orders. But many public water supplies have not.

The organizations want Governor Gavin Newsom to prevent all water utilities from shutting off water to homes because of unpaid bills, for at least four months after the end of the declared health emergency.

“It’s a huge public health crisis not having running water in our homes,” said Tracy Quinn, director of urban water policy at the Natural Resources Defence Council.

Quinn said the suggested moratorium also requests water services be reconnected to households that had their water shut off in the weeks prior to mid-March. Waived late fees and extended repayment plans after the crisis are also included in the outline.

Earlier this month, Newsom signed an executive ordertelling the California Public Utilities Commission—the state body that regulates all water utilities—to “monitor” both public and private water systems for water shutoffs. The CPUC only has direct jurisdiction over private water companies, and after the March 16 executive order, it sent a letter to those companies directing them to not shut off water to any customers.

But most people in California get their water from public systems, and the CPUC directive doesn’t apply to them. Hence, the need for a statewide mandate, advocacy groups say.

On March 29, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitner issued a moratorium that Quinn said is very similar to the group’s proposal. North Carolina and Ohio governors have also signed similar executive orders.

Jonathan Nelson from the advocacy group Community Water Center(CWC) said low income communities of color in rural areas will be hardest hit by water shutoffs and were already struggling to access clean water. The organizations have also requested emergency water stations throughout the state, because many communities do not get safe tap water.

“We’ve heard anecdotally that mothers are having to resort to Facebook groups—where can I find water?” Nelson said. “For my family, for coffee, for baby formula, for cooking—this is happening now.”

There are several communities in the Salinas Valley whose well water is so contaminated that residents must rely on bottled water.

CWC director of community solutions, Heather Lukacs, said many of those residents are not able to get bottled water because of bulk panic shopping due to COVID-19. She said the shelves are empty, and that many residents have to drive over 40 minutes to find bottles.

Lukacs said the CWC is starting up an emergency water bottle delivery program for the Central Coast in the upcoming weeks.

“People who really need it, who have contaminated water at home—who can’t drink or cook with their water because it has nitrates or other contaminants—they’re really struggling,” said Lukacs.

The advocacy groups said they feel relatively confident Governor Newsom will take action on water access.

Attorney Michael Claiborne with the nonprofit Leadership Councilsaid some local governments have already started issuing their own moratoriums, but there are thousands of water systems in the state that have not suspended water shutoffs.

You can contact the Community Water Center’s Watsonville Office at 831-288-0450. El Community Water Center está iniciando un programa de entrega de botellas de agua de emergencia para la Costa Central en las próximas semanas. Puede comunicarse con la oficina de Watsonville del Community Water Center al 831-288-0450.

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