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Environment & Energy Report

States, Utilities Pledge to Keep Water Flowing Amid Coronavirus

March 16, 2020, 9:12 PM

More than 100 public utilities in at least 34 states have agreed to halt the practice of cutting off water to homes that fail to pay their water bills during the coronavirus crisis.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been urging people to wash their hands regularly with soap, saying it’s one of the most effective methods of keeping the Covid-19 virus at bay. But that’s only possible if a household has running water.

“We are not going to touch anyone’s service during the public health crisis,” said Vince Morris, spokesman for DC Water, which distributes drinking water to District of Columbia residents after it is treated at the Washington Aqueduct. “We want everyone to have access to water for health and family needs.”

D.C. Water is among 114 public drinking water utilities announcing they would discontinue water service cutoffs for nonpayment as of Monday, according to Mary Grant, director of the nonprofit Food & Water Watch, which is tallying such announcements by utilities and states.

Detroit, which provides its own water and sewer service like most municipalities, was the first city to announce payment plans and assistance March 9 to help restore water to nonpaying customers.

“There really should be a national ban in this moment of crisis,” Grant said.

There are about 50,000 drinking water utilities in the U.S., according to Environmental Protection Agency estimates. While public utilities work with low-income customers to set up installment plans or assistance programs, many utilities will cut off service if payment isn’t made.

Restoring Service

Grant urged any utility that shut off the spigot due to customer nonpayment to turn it back on.

Fairfax Water, which serves 2 million customers in Northern Virginia, is “working on” restoring service to customers who have been cut off, spokeswoman Susan Miller said.

The utility last week imposed a ban on any new cutoffs, Miller said, but noted the ban doesn’t extend to wholesale customers such as the private water company, American Water.

Some places, such as New York City, never disconnect service for nonpayment. Four other localities had service shutoff bans in place prior to the pandemic, Grant said.

Some states also are taking action. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) issued an executive order Monday prohibiting all public utilities providing electric, gas, water, telephone, cable, and sewer services from terminating services or imposing penalties for nonpayment.

Maryland joined Connecticut, Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin in banning utilities from shutting off service during the coronavirus crisis.

To contact the reporter on this story: Amena H. Saiyid in Washington at asaiyid@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergenvironment.com; Rebecca Baker at rbaker@bloombergenvironment.com

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