This is Eileen Wray-McCann for Circle of Blue. And this is What’s Up with Water, your “need-to-know news” of the world’s water, made possible by support from people like you. 
In the United States, environmental, health, and civic groups have sued the federal government, claiming that revised rules for lead in drinking water are not strong enough to protect health. In late December, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finalized the rule revisions. According to MLive, the groups filing the lawsuits oppose many of the new drinking water rules, but they are especially concerned about the timelines for eliminating lead pipes. They argue that utilities are allowed too many years to remove a major source of lead in drinking water. One lawsuit was filed by Earthjustice and includes the NAACP and United Parents Against Lead. A second lawsuit was filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council.
A new study finds that lakes could suffer longer and hotter periods of extreme warm water by the end of the century. The study appears in the journal Nature. It found, for the first time, that heatwaves frequently occur in lakes, which are sensitive to variations in climate. Warmer waters harm native fish and encourage toxic algal blooms. An increase in global warming will prolong lake heatwaves, according to the study. The authors say that deeper lakes may be less vulnerable to higher temperatures, but warn that some lakes could eventually reach a permanent heatwave state.
In other research news, a study from Stanford University explored the benefits of piped water for women who usually have to fetch it from distant sources. The researchers found that the quality of life for women in rural Zambia drastically improved when water was more accessible. According to Reuters, the study found that women and girls, who typically bear the brunt of water gathering, spent 80 percent less time obtaining water when they had access to piped supplies. Piped water saved the average household in the study about 200 hours a year. That leaves more time for women and girls to garden, care for families, operate a business or pursue education. The women also reported that the less time they spent hauling water, the happier, healthier and less anxious they felt.
This week, Circle of Blue reports on one of the financial aftershocks of the coronavirus pandemic: a growing number of unpaid water bills.
Household water-bill debt in California has soared in the pandemic, worsening a water affordability crisis that particularly afflicts the state’s low-income residents and communities of color.
 A survey by California’s water regulator estimates that about 1.6 million households have a combined water debt of $1 billion. And that debt is growing by about $100 million every month. The State Water Resources Control Board also found that 155,000 households are deep in debt –  that is, owing more than $1,000 to their water departments. Many of those debt-stressed households are in poorer areas of southern and central Los Angeles County.
ZIP code-level data and demographic characteristics on income and race showed that the pandemic and water debt have been hardest on those already in financial distress. Max Gomberg is a conservation and climate manager at the State Water Resources Control Board. He said “People who were already hurting pre-Covid — communities that were lower-income, Black and brown communities — are those that have been most heavily impacted overall and by the water debt.”
California’s Water Board survey reveals the scope of a problem that many had seen growing in the months since Gov. Gavin Newsom prohibited water shutoffs. The governor ordered utilities to keep water flowing to ease the health emergency, regardless of unpaid bills. Though residents still have water even if they don’t pay,  the amount they owe to the water department continues to grow.
Jonathan Nelson of the advocacy group Community Water Center called the statistics “sobering.” He said they signal an oncoming drinking water crisis in California’s urban and rural areas. This crisis will affect the state’s poorest residents and communities of color, which already bear the brunt of polluted water. As Nelson told the water board, “This is unequivocally a matter of environmental justice and racial justice.”
This California survey is the most extensive statewide analysis of household water debt. More limited evaluations in states such as North Carolina have similar findings: the pandemic is raising water debt among residents who were already struggling.  A Circle of Blue investigation into household water debt in a dozen large U.S. cities found one and a half million past-due accounts amounting to over a billion dollars owed.
In addition to households, the California water board’s survey also assessed the financial impacts on utilities. The board created a “vulnerability rating” for each utility, based on revenue, expenses, and cash reserves. About 10 percent of utilities, most of them smaller, had financial risk rated as “high” or “extreme,” meaning they might need assistance in the next few months.
Financially stressed utilities plan to survive this period of turmoil by cutting capital projects such as tank replacements, and by drawing on reserves, shifting money from other municipal funds, or raising rates. It’s a strategy that will see them through the winter, but one with significant risks in the longer-term.
Laurel Firestone, a water board member, said she was worried that cost-cutting measures could lead to local water crises, such as the one in Flint, where officials did not use proper water treatment chemicals in order to save money. The concern is that often the systems that are struggling financially already have difficulty providing clean water. Joaquin Esquivel, chair of the California Water Board, said the year’s economic pressures “further unearthed the stress cracks” in water systems that regulators worried about even before the pandemic.
Laura Feinstein is the sustainability and resilience policy director at the non-profit policy organization SPUR. She said that water utilities and policymakers need to focus on three things as they look to unwind household debt. First, Feinstein said, aid programs should reach as many eligible households as possible, noting that California’s Bay Area has considerable room for improvement in this area. Second, utilities might need to consider debt forgiveness for households with extremely high debt burdens. And third, state and federal agencies will need to help with funding because most water providers can not solve customer debt problems on their own.
The federal government has already stepped up, albeit in a limited way. In December, Congress allocated $638 million for water debt relief.  However, when that money is spread across the states and tribes, it’s a drop in the bucket, as the California data shows. President Biden wants to go bigger. His $1.9 trillion Covid-relief proposal includes $5 billion for energy and water bill arrears.
State representatives also see an opportunity. California Sen. Bill Dodd recently announced legislation for a state water-bill assistance fund, something that the water board has already studied.
And that’s What’s Up With Water from Circle of Blue, which relies on your support for independent water news and analysis. Please visit and make a difference through your tax-deductible donation.