Democrats seek water shutoff protections and aid to low-income customers as part of $3 trillion package. Republicans quickly dismissed the bill.
By Brett Walton, Circle of Blue
In their latest proposal to deal with the massive personal financial fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic, House Democrats signaled their intent to channel more assistance to the poorest and most economically vulnerable Americans, and to keep their water running at a time when hygiene has life and death consequences.
The $3 trillion Heroes Act is a lengthy bill that would double the federal government’s current emergency spending to respond to a rampant virus and record-breaking unemployment that now stands at 14.7 percent – and is likely to rise.
“We must ‘think big’ for the people now because if we don’t, it will cost more in lives and livelihood later,” said Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, when unveiling the 1,815-page act on Tuesday.
The Heroes Act was quickly dismissed by Senate Republicans, whose support will be necessary for any aid deal.
“We have an absolute obligation to make sure that we are only appropriating what is really needed,” said Sen. John Thune, a South Dakota Republican who is majority whip.
For water, the act incorporates policy proposals that were already on Democrats’ wish list.
Provisions in the act would allocate $1.5 billion to help low-income residents pay their water bills. Democrats have stuck by this number since late March, even though California water groups started lobbying this week for $4 billion in customer assistance.
The Heroes Act would funnel this money to utilities via states and tribes. Instead of using the administrative apparatus of LIHEAP, an existing energy bill aid program that operates via customer applications, the money would go to utilities to offset the cost of providing bill discounts.
To be eligible for this money, utilities would have to agree to several restrictions: they would not shut off water to homes during the emergency period, they would reconnect water service to homes that are currently disconnected, and they would not charge late fees during the emergency period. States like California, Michigan, and New Hampshire have already ordered some of these actions, but there is no nationwide requirement.
The act makes clear that homeowners are responsible for eventually paying their water bills, even if they miss payments during the pandemic. Utilities have come out in support of a shutoff suspension, but only if it is limited to the pandemic emergency period.
Other avenues for water bill assistance are included in the proposal. A $75 billion homeowner assistance fund seems to allow recipients to use some of the money for utility payments such as water bills.
Utilities, on the whole, were ignored. The act does not include aid to water systems to make up for revenue lost due to business closures and a decrease in economic activity. An industry-backed study estimated that drinking water utilities could see a drop in revenue of $13.9 billion due to the pandemic. That could led to a decline in capital investment and affordability problems if utilities attempt to raise rates to cover the shortfall.
Brett writes about agriculture, energy, infrastructure, and the politics and economics of water in the United States. He also writes the Federal Water Tap, Circle of Blue’s weekly digest of U.S. government water news. He is the winner of two Society of Environmental Journalists reporting awards, one of the top honors in American environmental journalism: first place for explanatory reporting for a series on septic system pollution in the United States(2016) and third place for beat reporting in a small market (2014). He received the Sierra Club’s Distinguished Service Award in 2018. Brett lives in Seattle, where he hikes the mountains and bakes pies. Contact Brett Walton