Once the water bills started piling up, Shara Sin and her children switched to eating off paper plates to avoid the cost of washing.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the 53-year-old mother of four’s finances were already precariously balanced. She doesn’t work anymore because mental health complications cause her short-term memory loss and pain.
The federal Section 8 program covers most of the rent at her City Heights apartment, where she’s lived for the past 20 years. But her children are now at home trying to finish their college studies, putting more burden on the apartment’s utilities.
So when the first $325 water and sewer bill arrived in April, back-billing her for utilities from December through February, she panicked.
“I don’t have money. I had to ask my sister and daughter and the family, but they have their own life and bills to pay. I have a headache for that,” Sin said, her hand rising to her temple.
She’s not alone.
More than 69,600 people in San Diego County are behind on their water bill right now, according to a report published last week by the California State Water Resources Control Board . The agency surveyed all of California’s water utilities in November to get a clearer picture of the financial hardship utilities have on residents at a time when more people are jobless and quarantining at home. Statewide, one in eight Californians has water debt, and the unpaid bill total has swelled to $1 billion , according to a CalMatters analysis of the data.
“That’s what’s alarming about that data. That much debt has accrued that fast,” said Glenn Farrel, the San Diego County Water Authority’s chief state lobbyist. “That tells us there’s a lot of folks living on the edge, on a month-to-month basis. And if they’re that quickly turning to water debt, it’s a structural systemic problem.”
Gov. Gavin Newsom banned utilities from shutting off water during the pandemic. But that didn’t provide financial assistance to actually pay off those bills.
Leaders first tackled blocking evictions and unpaid rent to keep people in their homes. On Monday, Newsom and state leaders pledged to pay off 80 percent of the unpaid rent if landlords agree to forgive the remaining 20 percent.
The Water Authority is working with other water agencies to get bill relief approved in the state budget, Farrel said. That approach could provide relief “much sooner by avoiding the lengthy legislative process that would likely stretch into late summer or early fall” than if it was contained in a standalone bill, Farrel said.
Locally, the San Diego City Council extended an eviction moratorium for renters and small businesses  under ordinances proposed last week by Mayor Todd Gloria. That means tenants can’t be evicted for unpaid rent starting Monday and ending 60 days after the city lifts its COVID-19 emergency declaration, issued back in March 2020 .
But water bills in a city where water ranks as some of the most expensive  in the country still hasn’t been addressed.
Over 11,200 San Diegans behind on their water bill owe more than $1,000, which accounts for 16 percent of the total delinquent bills. Just over half owe $300 or less. The areas where people are struggling most include City Heights, Encanto and Otay Mesa, neighborhoods that are generally lower-income and more racially diverse.
In response to an inquiry from Voice of San Diego, Councilwoman Monica Montgomery Steppe, whose district includes the Encanto neighborhood, said she plans to work with the city’s Public Utilities Department “to ensure no accounts are being referred to collections, no interest is being charged.”
“The pandemic has ravaged our communities of concern with job loss and the shuttering of small businesses, which has directly impacted some of our residents’ ability to pay their rent, utility bills and other basic necessities,” said Montgomery Steppe in an email via her Communications Director Perri Storey.
There are 24 different water agencies in the region and they all operate a little differently.
“We all have different rules as far as when we send it to collections and when we place liens,” said Tish Berge, general manager of Sweetwater Authority, referring to the right to take possession of property until a debt can be paid off.
Sweetwater doesn’t use property taxes or other funds to keep its system running. It’s all based on individual customers paying their bills. So customer debt is then the utility’s debt.
Sweetwater Authority covers 190,000 residents in some of the areas hardest-hit by water debt, like Chula Vista, National City and Bonita. Its customers accumulated $1.5 million in unpaid water bills as of November, a number that’s likely risen since then.
“It’s delayed revenue. That’s still money that will eventually come to Sweetwater Authority and we’re able to use our reserves (savings) to cushion us and get us through the period,” Berge said.
Not all utilities are surviving as well as Sweetwater. The State Water Board’s report estimates up to 25 small to medium-sized water systems are at extreme risk due to prolonged revenue loss from unpaid bills and may need help from the state or feds before April.
In May, Sweetwater’s board decided to let customers extend debt repayment plans from 12 to 24 months so they could spread out their payments during the pandemic.
“We’re encouraging customers to pay, even if it’s just $20 a paycheck, so they’re not so behind when those end,” said Leslie Payne, the Sweetwater Authority’s public information officer.
But the authority is concerned customers won’t even be able to afford even the extended repayment plan once the pandemic ends.
“Finding funding either from a federal or state source and getting cities and counties to provide assistance for equitable aid in San Diego County, that’s what’s most important for us,” Berge said. “I want folks to come out of this pandemic and not be adversely affected because of their ZIP code.”
But there’s been no official action by the city or the county to stabilize people facing water debt locally yet. That’s why it may have to come from the state.
State Sen. Bill Dodd, a Democrat from Napa, has introduced two bills to avoid the pending shutoff crisis, CalMatters noted. One bill would require water agencies  to provide a 12-month repayment plan, at least, and wait until a customer is four months behind and owes over $400 to shut off water. The other  would set up a water affordability assistance program, though it identifies no funding to do it.
President Joe Biden recently proposed $5 billion  to help renters cover water and energy costs.
But California doesn’t have any structure or mechanism in place to get those federal funds to the pockets of ratepayers. One exists for assisting low-income ratepayers to cover energy bills  but not in the water world, Farrel said.
For now, Sin is battling her property’s owners over high and unexpected water bills with the help of the San Diego Tenants United. Her case is complicated by a few other factors, though.
The Section 8 program will cover some utility costs, but not as a reimbursement. If a landlord decides to start charging Section 8 tenants for water and sewer, they should notify the Housing Commission so the agency can review and adjust the tenant’s rent subsidy, said Claire Bell, vice president of rental assistance at the San Diego Housing Commission.
Whether the Mendes Company, the property’s managers, properly handled Sin’s case with the Housing Commission is unclear. The company said it’s experiencing higher than usual utility bills as residents shelter in place. “We find … when the residents are responsible for their own utilities… utility conservation numbers improve dramatically,” Anthony Mendes, the company’s CEO, wrote in an email.
Tenants United provided another document showing the company recently identified a leak in the building, which may have been why the water bill skyrocketed. Mendes Company didn’t respond to questions about that or the case with the Housing Commission.
“We’re seeing more cases of (unpaid utilities) being used as a grounds to evict tenants,” said Ash Kuhnert, an organizer for Tenants United. “If tenants can’t pay, they can call that a lease violation, which isn’t covered by the (COVID-19 eviction) moratorium.”
All Sin can be sure of is that she’s been charged at least $1,500 since April 21 for water and sewer, and was even charged twice on the same day in July for four months’ worth of those utilities, according to a ledger of her charges provided by Sin and Tenants United.
“I don’t know what to do,” Sin said. “I had to speak up.”
Sin uses some of her food stamps to buy bottled water for drinking and avoid the tap. On a recent stormy Saturday afternoon, the only lights burning in her three-bedroom home were coming from the kitchen and an altar to the Buddha stacked high with fruits and other offerings.
Her ledger shows Sin’s been trying to keep up with her water payments. Sin said she used money that would have otherwise been spent on her daughter’s school books.
“The company said if you don’t pay water, you have to move out,” Sin said. “I have nowhere to go.”
Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated how many San Diegans are $1,000 or more behind on their water bills, and $300 or less behind. Over 11,200 San Diegans behind on their water bill owe more than $1,000. Just over half owe $300 or less.