If you could get to another planet, what would you need to live there? It’s a straightforward question with a simple answer—air, food, shelter, and water. These elements are so basic to life that New York State has programs to help people with each one. Air is free and abundant, but the state has laws protecting it from pollution, so it is safe to breathe. The New York SNAP program helps millions of New Yorkers purchase food. There are multiple programs that help with affordable housing. All these well-known programs are vital to so many in our population.
What about water?
First it is helpful to define the problem. Recent data released by the Western NY Law Center and the National Center for Law and Economic Justice (NCLEJ) reveals a hidden water affordability crisis plaguing New York households.
They found that over 200,000 water customers in Monroe, Erie, Oneida, and Suffolk Counties—which together serve more than three million New Yorkers—owed their respective authorities more than $40 million in the fall of 2021. In New York City, water and wastewater utility-reported arrears had doubled since the start of the pandemic, totaling around $750 million.
The Hudson Valley is no exception to ballooning utility debt. Recent figures show Central Hudson had more than 50,000 residential energy customers owing well over $42 million in April of 2022. Though water systems in the Hudson Valley aren’t required to report data like energy utilities are, it is safe to assume that the number of New Yorkers who are behind on their water bills has skyrocketed in the region too.
Unfortunately, the best we can do right now is assume. New York’s water utilities are not required to release data on how many shutoffs they conduct, how much debt water customers are in, or any other indicators of the affordability of water services. When the Western NY Law Center and NCLEJ attempted to secure data from 10 of the largest water utilities in the state, only four responded to requests. Among those four utilities, there was no consistency in how they collect or report data. For example, the Erie County Water Authority claims it does not track how many shutoffs it conducts.
A big step toward addressing this issue is to make sure we have good data. Fortunately, there is a bill before the legislature, sponsored by Assemblymember Kevin Cahill and Senator Kevin Parker, that would require utilities to publish data on debt, shutoffs, and other critical indicators of utility affordability. With this data, New York can put in place the policies and funding needed to ensure that every New Yorker can afford their water bills.
There is some assistance available for New York utility bill payers who are in arrears, but the limited data available shows that it isn’t enough to meet the need, and state funds aimed at helping to alleviate utility debt are not going toward water bills. This year’s state budget put $250 million toward eliminating pandemic-related electric and heat utility debts for low-income households. However, none of that funding will relieve water debt, which can lead to water shutoffs and foreclosures. The primary source of water debt relief comes from the federally funded Low Income Household Water Assistance Program (LIHWAP). New York received a one-time grant of nearly $70 million from the federal government in 2020 for LIHWAP, but the program was not allocated any additional funding in this year’s state budget.
We can’t solve what we can’t measure. The Legislature should pass A.7554-B/S.5451-C before they leave Albany in June. No one should be at risk of losing access to clean water just because they may be struggling financially. As New Yorkers continue to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, the time to act is now.