For Immediate Release: March 21, 2022
Contacts Listed Below
Water debt plagues communities, underscoring need for government action
New data released today by the Western NY Law Center and the National Center for Law and Economic Justice (NCLEJ) reveals a snapshot of the hidden water affordability crisis plaguing New York households. Following Freedom of Information Law requests to water authorities in Monroe, Erie, Oneida, and Suffolk Counties, which together serve over 3 million New Yorkers, the groups found that hundreds of thousands of customer accounts owed their respective authorities over $40 million in Fall 2021. Since New York’s utility shut-off moratorium expired in December 2021, this debt will provoke water shut-offs or foreclosures, which can impact health and livelihoods, and in the case of families with children, could lead to intervention by child and family services.
Key findings include:
- In October 2021, more than 200,000 residential accounts collectively owed over $31 million to the Suffolk County Water Authority (SCWA). These debts can carry serious consequences. Before the statewide shut-off moratorium was in place, SCWA conducted 2,637 residential shutoffs for nonpayment from January 2019 through March 2020.
- In early December 2021, the Monroe County Water Authority had 3,534 residential and commercial accounts in arrears. Pre-pandemic, the utility conducted 1,834 shutoffs for nonpayment in 2019, and 403 shut offs between January 2020 and March 2020.
- In October 2021, residential and commercial accounts owed over $7.9 million in water debt to the Erie County Water Authority. This is an increase of over $2.7 million from the figures reported two years prior.
- In 2021, the Mohawk Valley Water Authority had over $800,000 due in arrears from 3,006 residential customers.
With energy debt in New York reported at $1.8 billion and New York City’s water and wastewater utility noting that residential and commercial arrears have nearly doubled since the start of the pandemic, totaling at around $750 million dollars; it is safe to assume that water debt has surged to at least the hundreds of millions statewide. Despite the urgency of this crisis, neither Governor Hochul, the State Senate, or the State Assembly have proposed any funding for water bill assistance in their respective budget proposals.
Advocates are calling for the final state budget, due April 1, to include at least $400 million for the Low Income Household Water Assistance Program, which relieves both customers and water utilities of crushing debt and ensures participating New Yorkers don’t lose access to water. Currently, its only source of funding is a $70 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Additionally, NCLEJ, the Western New York Law Center, and other groups are also pushing for the passage of legislation in Albany to reinstate the utility shut-off moratorium (S.7668) and to require utilities to regularly publish data on debt, shut-offs, and other critical indicators of utility affordability (S.5451-A).
Water utilities are not required to release data on shutoffs and customer arrears, or any other indicators of the affordability of water services, to the public. The Western NY Law Center and NCLEJ attempted to secure data from ten of the largest water utilities in the state, but only four responded to FOIL requests. Among those four utilities, there is no consistency in how they collect or report data. For example, the Erie County Water Authority claims it does not track how many shut-offs they conduct.
The unaffordable cost of water and the compounding harms of subsequent debt is exacerbating the economic realities New Yorkers are facing from the ongoing pandemic and global crises. Gasoline prices are the highest they’ve ever been, energy bills are doubling due to global commodity cost increases, capacity issues and shortages, and overall, New Yorkers are struggling to to pay their essential bills. People’s access to clean water must not be another essential service that’s placed at risk.
“The data from selected municipal water providers across the State documents that the aggregate amount of money owed by water customers was a grave problem before the pandemic,” said Western New York Law Center attorney Steve Halpern. “That problem has ballooned in drastic ways during the pandemic. To devise effective statewide policies addressing water affordability, the State needs detailed, reliable, systematic data about the gravity of the problem and should disseminate that information publicly on an annual basis.”
“Water affordability has always been a problem in New York, but the pandemic has pushed families to the brink. No one should have to choose between paying rent, buying food, and having access to water. The data released today underscores this dilemma. We need the NYS Legislature and Governor Hochul to take action so that no one gets denied this fundamental right,” said NCLEJ attorney Katharine Deabler-Meadows.
“New Yorkers deserve unhindered access to safe, clean water — a literal lifesaver in the ongoing fight against the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Food & Water Watch Senior New York Organizer Eric Weltman. “Thanks to lax state regulations, households statewide are shouldering the burden of rising water prices and that’s not right. $400 million is a minor price to pay for Governor Hochul to help ensure equitable access to water in our state. She must pass $400 million in water debt relief via the state budget, and ensure the passage of S.7668 and S.5451-A to fundamentally address New York’s water affordability crisis.”
“Though the state recently launched a low-income water assistance program, the program’s limited federal funding can’t come close to meeting the needs of the thousands of New Yorkers who are at-risk of losing essential water service because they have fallen behind on bills during the pandemic,” said Larry Levine, Director of Urban Water Infrastructure and Senior Attorney at NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council). “The legislature must beef up the water assistance program in its April 1st budget to ensure all New Yorkers can access clean, reliable water from their taps.”
Dharma Santos-Santiago, Clean Water Associate at Environmental Advocates NY said, “New Yorkers are still struggling to recover from the COVID-19 crisis. No one should be at risk of losing access to clean water as they get back on their feet financially. This new data reveals that Governor Hochul and the State Legislature must act now to ensure that every New Yorker can afford their water bills. State leaders must include funding for water assistance in the state budget, and pass other critical legislation this session to increase data transparency and protect New Yorkers from harmful collection practices like shut-offs.”
Phoebe Galt, Food & Water Watch, 207-400-1275, [email protected]
Brian Keegan, Environmental Advocates NY, 518-441-8339, [email protected]
Katharine Deabler-Meadows, National Center for Law and Economic Justice, 212-644-6967, [email protected]