Gov. Jay Inslee should do more to ensure all Washington residents have access to water in their homes during the novel coronavirus crisis, a group of community and advocacy organizations say.
More than 20 organizations plan to send a letter to Inslee on Thursday asking him to suspend all water service disconnections for nonpayment and to require water be restored to homes previously disconnected for nonpayment.
The organizations say people across the state need to be able to keep themselves and others safe from the virus by washing their hands and shouldn’t have to worry about losing water during a time when unemployment is spiking.
The coalition includes Food & Water Action, 350 Seattle, the Sierra Club’s state chapter, Washington Community Action Network, the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness and the Washington State Labor Council.
In a March 18 emergency order, Inslee “strongly encouraged” all utilities in the state to “take reasonable actions to mitigate the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on their utility customers caused by this crisis.” The order urged but did not mandate utilities “to prevent disconnection of services due to nonpayment” during the crisis.
Most of the state’s largest water providers, including the public utilities that serve Seattle, Bellevue, Spokane, Tacoma, Vancouver, Everett, Renton, Redmond and other cities, have suspended disconnections for nonpayment.
Still, several public utilities have yet to make clear commitments to halt disconnections for nonpayment, and only two have promised reconnections, according to research by Food & Water Action that may be imprecise because the organization has struggled to compile comprehensive updates on the patchwork of policies. Most of the state’s 52 smaller, private water providers have yet to make commitments to halt disconnections, according to the organization’s research.
The public utilities without clear messages on the suspension of shut-offs include those serving Kent, Yakima and Pasco, and they serve 450,000 people, according to Food & Water Action’s research.
“Public health depends on universal water access,” the coalition’s letter to Inslee says. “We need running water at home to keep ourselves and our communities safe. Water must be turned on for everyone, right now, for the safety of all Washington residents, and the entire country.”
In an email earlier this week, Inslee spokesman Mike Faulk said the governor has sought to weigh various considerations.
“While water services are essential under the governor’s emergency proclamation, we also know there are smaller utility companies across Washington that may operate with slim margins,” he wrote. “Providing safe, clean drinking water requires adequate revenue. We don’t want a reduction in revenue to affect their ability to provide safe drinking water.”
The spokesman added, “It’s a difficult issue that we continue to study as we monitor and slow the spread of COVID-19. As we provide immediate relief to customers who cannot pay, we need to look after the financial well-being of water providers, particularly smaller utilities.”
Inslee’s March 18 order also encouraged utilities to waive late payments and fees, and many have done so. The water-advocacy letter asks him to make that mandatory. “There are no plans yet for additional actions related to this, but, as we have learned in our response to this crisis, things can change quickly,” Faulk wrote.