Amidst COVID Crisis, Cuomo Must Ensure Access to Water for All New Yorkers

For Immediate Release: April 6, 2020

Contacts listed below

Amidst COVID Crisis, Cuomo Must Ensure Access to Water for All New Yorkers

Coalition calls on Governor to issue executive order requiring shut-off moratorium and restoration of water service

A coalition of over 70 + New York organizations is calling on Governor Cuomo to issue an executive order that ensures every New Yorker has clean water during the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Friday the groups sent a letter to Cuomo – signed by environmental and community groups as well as labor, senior, civil rights, and faith-based organizations – that lays out three urgent actions: suspend water shut-offs statewide; proactively restore water to households where water was previously suspended due to non-payment; and provide relief for those struggling to pay their water bills.

“This is a critical test of Governor Cuomo’s leadership in preventing the spread of the coronavirus,” said Eric Weltman, a Brooklyn-based senior organizer for Food & Water Action. Cuomo must immediately take action to ensure that every New Yorker can take the basic precaution of washing their hands.”

Maureen Cunningham, senior director for clean water at Environmental Advocates of New York said, “New Yorkers need clean water now more than ever before. Denying water through shut-offs is unconscionable on any day, but especially during our current public health crisis. We urge Governor Cuomo to act quickly to suspend water shut-offs by all public and private utilities, restore water where it has been cut off, and ensure customers are not penalized for non-payment. New York has shown the world we can lead, but we now need to ensure every New Yorker has access to clean water during this COVID-19 pandemic.”

On March 13, Governor Cuomo announced that private water utilities had agreed to cease water shut-offs. These are voluntary measures that only apply to a fraction of service providers in the state, leaving out the almost 3,000 public water systems that serve over 18 million New Yorkers.

Some public water systems – including Binghamton and Buffalo – have committed to ending shut-offs, while existing policy in New York City forbids shut-offs. The Governor needs to ensure the remaining New Yorkers serviced by public water systems are not overlooked and are protected from shut-offs during the crisis.

Frank Natalie, business agent for UA, Plumbers and Steamfitters Local No. 7 said, “It is unfathomable that a person or family would be denied access to potable water just because of their socioeconomic situation, or for any other reasons for that matter. Now, as New York State has become the epicenter of the worst global pandemic in modern times, and clean water is critical in helping to combat the spread of the novel COVID-19 virus, the Government fails to act decisively and intelligently. We live in a society governed by a Constitution that guarantees certain natural rights and individual liberties, and having access to clean water without condition or status is one of them. We have a chance to save thousands of lives that requires turning on the water today!”

In addition, many New Yorkers may be currently cut off from clean water. From 2015 through March 2019, Buffalo terminated water in over 17,000 instances. The groups point out that universal access to water will assist New York in combating the spread of the COVID-19 epidemic, and that shutoffs disproportionately impact low-income households and communities of color.

"I am a 67-year-old Vietnam veteran whose water has been shut off for about 16 months due to non-payment,” said Buffalo resident Mike Haury. I had a stroke two years ago and was out of work for six months. I would get water from the leaks in my roof which I cannot afford to replace, to flush the toilet and buy water for showers, drinking and washing dishes. The week of March 16 I went to two stores to try and get water and finally found some at the third store. To take a shower I would heat up two gallons of water in a big pot and, using a cup, pour water over my head and then soap up and work my way down. Steve from the Western New York Law Center was able to get my water back on March 20. I don't think it would be on if it wasn't for him. Doing dishes was just doing one pot or pan at a time using warmed up water, it took a long time to get it done. I'm lucky I didn't catch the virus since I had to go to three stores for water and then a fourth one to buy food for the week. It is very important to get the water back on for everyone. Without water you don't wash your hands unless they are dirty because it seems like a waste of water.”

Steve Halpern, staff attorney for The Western New York Law Center said, "From 2015 through March 2019, the Buffalo Water Board shut off water for nonpayment in over 17,000 instances. Some of those individuals managed to scrape up enough money to either pay their bills or get on a payment plan. But our best estimate is that going into the present public health crisis there were hundreds of families living without water. Although the Board has ceased shutting water off during this crisis, many of those who entered it without water are still living without it. We urge the Governor to order the Water Board to take systematic and proactive steps to communicate directly with all those living without water and to dispatch workers to all the addresses where it knows it has shut off water."

Kevin Quinn, supervising attorney for the Center for Elder Law and Justice said, “The Center for Elder Law and Justice works hard to fight for our community’s older adults, who are among the most vulnerable. Lack of access to clean water poses an extreme risk during a normal environment, but during this state of global pandemic, it could be a death sentence.” 

Several states – including California, Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana, Kansas, North Carolina, Ohio, Maine, and New Hampshire – have already established moratoriums covering all public and private water systems. California and Michigan are requiring water systems to proactively restore service to all customers.

Without a clear mandate from Governor Cuomo, many New Yorkers will face greater vulnerability to COVID-19 due to a lack of clean water.

Anna Kelles, Local Progress NY co-chair and Tompkins County legislator said, “Local Progress NY is committed to providing our members guidance and working together across city and town lines to ensure clean, safe water for all of our constituents during this health crisis.”

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Brian Keegan, Environmental Advocates of New York: 518-441-8339; bkeegan@eany.org

Eric Weltman, Food & Water Action: 617-304-5330; eweltman@fwwatch.org