**FILE** D.C. Council member Zachary Parker introduced last week the Water is Life Amendment Act of 2024, which would prohibit DC Water from shutting off residential customers for nonpayment. (Robert R. Roberts/The 番茄社区app)
**FILE** D.C. Council member Zachary Parker introduced last week the Water is Life Amendment Act of 2024, which would prohibit DC Water from shutting off residential customers for nonpayment. (Robert R. Roberts/The 番茄社区app)

D.C. Council member Zachary Parker introduced legislation last week that would prohibit DC Water from shutting off residential customers for nonpayment, a practice he called 鈥渋nhumane.鈥

Citing the utility鈥檚 own slogan, Parker named the bill the 鈥.鈥

One Brookland resident, who asked to remain anonymous, described her experience with a water disconnection as 鈥渘erve-wracking and infuriating.鈥 She found herself without water just before Thanksgiving in 2018, when she expected to host her mother, her siblings and their families for the first time. 

鈥淲hen you don’t have running water in a building, it’s considered uninhabitable,鈥 the Ward 5 homeowner said. 鈥淪o why would you do that to people?鈥

Parker鈥檚 bill, introduced Feb. 1, also aims to provide wider access to . Some provisions would make it easier for residents to enroll in extended repayment plans, and others would allow tenants to work directly with DC Water if their landlord fails to pay the bills for which they鈥檙e responsible. 

鈥淒C Water supports the elements of the bill designed to ensure that residential tenants can access their water bill and utility assistance programs intended to help avoid service interruptions,鈥 DC Water spokesperson John Lisle said in an emailed statement. 鈥淗owever, DC Water strongly opposes the proposal to ban disconnections for non-payment. Such a ban would violate DC Water鈥檚 Congressionally mandated financial independence, will cause rates to increase [and] violate bondholder agreements, and is not necessary because DC Water offers robust financial assistance to customers.鈥

DC Water disconnected residential customers for nonpayment 2,875 times in 2023, according to the utility. 

Payment Paradoxes

The homeowner in Brookland had her home鈥檚 water shut off after her bill jumped to $1,100 because of a running toilet she didn鈥檛 know about. Once disconnected, she had to pay the full bill in order to get service back: DC Water wouldn鈥檛 allow her to use any assistance program or payment plan that she might have had access to if she鈥檇 caught the problem before the disconnection. 

鈥淚t鈥檚 like, you all cut it off, and I can’t even do a payment plan 鈥 at that point, I’m trying to offer you money, but you insist that if I don’t pay it all, you won’t turn my water back on,鈥 she said. 鈥淭he system is clearly designed for punishment.鈥

The 鈥淲ater is Life鈥 act would require the utility to allow any eligible resident to sign up for payment plans, regardless of the status of their account. 

DC Water鈥檚 current policy also includes a $55 termination fee and a $50 reconnection fee for anyone whose water is cut off. Representatives from the utility declined to provide exact details on what criteria they use to decide if it will disconnect a household, though any property 鈥渄elinquent for 30 days or more from the date of the bill鈥 may be cut off. 

When DC Water paused shutoffs during the pandemic, it saw increased delinquencies, Lisle, the DC Water spokesperson, wrote in an email. The utility estimated that the financial impact of a ban on shutoffs 鈥渃ould be close to $30 million each year,鈥 and said that the lost revenue would result in higher rates for all customers and reduced funding for improvement and maintenance projects. 

Both Parker and DC Water cited Chicago, which prohibited water shutoffs as of 2022, as an example 鈥 but reached opposite conclusions.

鈥淐hicago鈥檚 overall customer delinquencies appear to have doubled after the implementation of a similar policy,鈥 Lisle wrote. 

Parker said in Chicago, 鈥渢here have not been any significant financial impediments to that utility service, so we do not anticipate this undermining the utility or its financial stability.鈥 

According to Parker, it鈥檚 actually more expensive for the utility to turn the water off and back on again than it would be just to continue service. The council member argued in the new bill鈥檚 introductory letter that DC Water鈥檚 ability to impose a lien on a property associated with a delinquent account would be enough to incentivize payment.

鈥淭he message here should not be, and is not, that it’s okay for you not to pay your bill,鈥 Parker said. 鈥淒C water would still have tools at its disposal to hold people accountable鈥 Most people want to pay their bills, but, for a variety of reasons, can’t. And it’s inhumane to have people in the District of Columbia living in properties where they don’t have access to water.鈥

Water Disconnections Can Pose Serious Health Threats

During the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, the D.C. Council ordered a moratorium on all utility shutoffs for unpaid bills. That ended in January 2022, though COVID is very much still around and globally

Places like D.C. that stopped water disconnections in response to COVID-19 saw significantly fewer coronavirus cases and deaths than jurisdictions that continued to allow them, according to . If the whole country had adopted a moratorium on water shutoffs, the researchers estimated, it might have saved over 9,000 lives.

鈥淲ater shutoffs pose serious threats to public health and wellbeing, allowing diseases to spread and causing trauma for affected families,鈥 said Mary Grant, the director for Food & Water Watch鈥檚 Public Water for All Campaign, in an email. 鈥淒.C. should join a growing number of cities from Chicago to Los Angeles in stopping this punitive practice of denying water over unaffordable bills.鈥

In addition to aiding the spread of contagious disease, some water quality advocates say disconnections can increase risks for lead contamination. The longer water sits stagnant in a pipe, the , allowing lead to leach into the water. 

Paul Schwartz, an activist who has been pushing for D.C. to address its lead service lines since the city鈥檚 2004 water crisis, described Parker鈥檚 bill as 鈥渓ong overdue.鈥 

鈥淲ithin 24 hours of water being shut off, lead rises to dangerous levels at the tap,鈥 Schwartz said in an emailed comment. 鈥淚 wonder if anyone at DC Water has gone a day without water? How can you cook, reconstitute formula, or take a bath without water? Water is a human right, not a commodity that people can live without.鈥

Shutoffs Could Widen Racial Wealth Gap as Rates Keep Rising

DC Water鈥檚 rates have increased by 87% over the last decade, and are projected to increase another 80% over the next decade, according to a from more than 40 organizations urging D.C. Council members to ban utility shutoffs.聽

As of 2022, more than 10,000 households in the District had water bills at least 90 days overdue, and that debt was primarily concentrated in Wards 4, 5, 7 and 8, said Selah Goodson Bell, an energy justice campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity. Goodson Bell said he hopes Council member Parker鈥檚 legislation would lead to similar policies for energy utilities.聽

鈥淭his bill is a great start toward transforming the District鈥檚 broken water utility system that too often fails renters, low-income households, and Black and Hispanic families,鈥 he said in an email. 鈥淭he council needs to pass this bill and then deliver comprehensive utility justice in the District by also banning residential power and heat shutoffs for non-payment.鈥

Water disconnections disproportionately affect Black and Hispanic Washingtonians because, compared to white, non-Hispanic residents, they face higher water burdens 鈥 a term that describes the total percentage of income that goes toward water bills.聽

The median water burden of D.C.鈥檚 Black households is 51% higher than it is for white households, found. 

DC Water offers to income-eligible customers, including extended payment programs, discounts on water and sewer services and emergency relief funds. However, less than 25% of Washingtonians eligible for repayment programs currently use them, Parker said.

The Brookland resident who faced a shutoff in 2018 leaned on family and friends for help to pay off the full bill. She stayed 鈥 with her dog 鈥 at a neighbor鈥檚 house until her water was turned back on two days later.聽

鈥淚 was very, very fortunate that I had the resources to pay it, and there are too many people that aren’t as fortunate,鈥 she said. 鈥淚 think there’s a war on the poor in this city. 鈥 And so many of these issues 鈥 most of them only affect the poor. And our agencies and our lawmakers, they have means, so these types of things just go unnoticed. It takes someone like Council member Parker to raise the issue, to force anyone to pay attention.鈥

Kayla Benjamin covers climate change & environmental justice for the Informer as a full-time reporter through the Report for America program. Prior to her time here, she worked at Washingtonian Magazine...

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  1. If you are renting and there is no incentive to pay your water bill (shut off) people are not going to pay their water bill. People will need money for food, medicine, transportation and fun. Guess who gets stuck with the bill, the owner of the property. This is just another example
    of how this city is anti landlord.

  2. I agree with eliminating the random service fees and expanding access to assistance programs, but it鈥檚 ridiculous to eliminate shutoff option. It will just spiral out of control with people refusing to pay because they know they can get away with it. Has DC Council learned nothing from spikes in crime, increase in WMATA fare evasion, etc.? What sounds nice on paper isn鈥檛 always realistic.

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