Water systems across the country have approached drinking water affordability using different metrics and innovative solutions. While other parts of the country take on affordability at a local level, California is tackling this issue at the statewide level.
In 2012, California Governor Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill (AB) 685, declaring water to be a human right. This enactment not only made California the first state to legally recognize this basic need, but highlighted challenges that needed to be addressed in order to fulfill the State’s commitment. This post focuses on 1) the affordability challenge which has received national attention as California tries to implement the first statewide low-income rate assistance (LIRA) program and 2) other proposed or passed California legislation related to water affordability.
AB 401 (Dodd, 2015) required the State Water Resources Control Board (State Water Board) to develop a plan for a household-level LIRA program for drinking water. This includes establishing a revenue source and criteria for household eligibility and enrollment. Additionally, the plan will have recommendations on how to minimize costs and thus enhance customer affordability for water utilities. To complete this daunting task, the State Water Board contracted the University of California, Los Angeles and legal staff from the University of California, Berkeley to design scenarios for a LIRA program.
Before the signing of AB 401, California already had existing regulations for LIRA programs for water utilities. Depending on the ownership of the water utility, public or private, regulations varied. The Environmental Finance Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill highlights this in Navigating Legal Pathways to Rate-Funded Customer Assistance Programs: A Guide for Water and Wastewater (2017). In California, private water and wastewater utilities, also known as investor-owned utilities, are regulated by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). Not only does the CPUC regulate rates, but it also allows for the creation and implementation of LIRA programs. For public  water and wastewater utilities, also known as government-owned utilities, implementing LIRA programs is a bit more challenging. This is due to Proposition 218 (1996), which requires agencies to charge property owners water fees that solely reflect the direct cost of the water service . This limits funding options for public water utilities to subsidize LIRA programs as rate revenues cannot be used to fund them.
Following these assembly bills, Senate Bill 623 (Monning, 2017), which proposed a state drinking water tax, was introduced. The state tax would assist communities with drinking water that currently violates federal and state drinking water standards, which could affect affordability due to increased treatment costs. The bill would append an additional $0.95 monthly fee for residential customers and up to a $10 monthly fee for businesses. Customers whose household income is less than 200 percent of the federal poverty line would be exempt from the fee. The agricultural industry would receive a higher monthly fee due to frequent chemical use, which commonly causes high water contamination. This controversial bill eventually became a two-year bill  and was put under committee review. However, a similar bill was recently introduced in the 2018-19 Governor’s Budget as a budget trailer bill , fomenting more controversy.
Senate Bill (SB) 998 (Dodd, 2018), which provides a standardized process on water utility shutoffs to residential customers, is the latest bill to be introduced. Part of the process would involve water utilities to provide an advanced written notice of a water shutoff and provide a 60-day grace period for delinquent customers—thus, ensuring continuation of water service. If a water shutoff were to occur, fees for re-connection are to be waived for low-income households that are under the 200 percent federal poverty line.
Note: Bills that currently under review are subject to change at any time after the publication of this post (May 1, 2018)
Achieving water affordability has no shortage of challenges from both economic and legal aspects, especially in the case of a state-wide program. For every state or city, the way to achieve affordability is different, but analyzing cities or states which have tackled the issue of affordability can provide insight to other groups who are looking to address this issue. As California continues to strive to achieve the legally recognized human right to water, it also continues the discussion on drinking water affordability. California’s legislative session officially adjourns on November 30. For the most up-to-date information on bills currently under review, please visit the California Legislative Information website.
 The ownership is public.
 Prop. 218. Article XIII D. §. 6 (b) 1-4.
 Two-year bill: A bill that is carried over from the first year into the second year during the two-year legislative session.
 Budget trailer bill: A bill that implements statutory changes as part of the budget adoption.
Claudia Flores is a project coordinator with the Environmental Finance Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and works from a satellite office in Georgia. She graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles where she majored in Environmental Science and minored in Environmental Systems and Society.