California Households Owe $1 Billion in Water Bills, Highlighting the State’s Water Affordability Crisis

More than 1.6 million households in the state have unpaid water bills, and much of the debt centers in Black and Latinx communities that have been hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic.

For many Californians, water bills are piling up at unprecedented rates during the pandemic, exacerbating water affordability issues that disproportionately impact low-income residents and communities of color.

A recent survey by the California State Water Resources Board, which was supported by research from the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation, shows the extent of water bill debt accumulation during the COVID-19 pandemic. Households owe a combined $1 billion in unpaid bills, which has increased substantially since the pandemic.

The report finds that roughly 12 percent of Californians have overdue payments on their water bills. The average debt amounts to $500, but about 155,000 households owe more than $1,000 in unpaid bills. 

The data illuminates racial inequalities in access to affordable drinking water. Households in Black and Latinx neighborhoods are more likely to have unpaid bills, and have disproportionately higher amounts of debt. These racial disparities exist even after adjusting for income and housing. 

“Many of these communities already faced challenges pre-COVID, and now they are most heavily impacted by the water debt,” said Peter Roquemore, a researcher on the study and water project manager at the Luskin Center for Innovation. 

Los Angeles County contains the highest concentration of debts within the state, especially residents in South L.A. In addition to the high amounts of debts, many of these neighborhoods lack equitable access to safe and clean water — largely because the small water systems in this region are struggling to serve these neighborhoods. Without immediate government support, many of these small water systems risk failure. 

Upcoming research by the Luskin Center for Innovation will propose potential solutions for the State’s water needs, including recommendations on ensuring the Human Right to Water for all Californians, regardless of their income level or economic status.