Despite record-breaking heat waves in the western U.S. brought on by worsening impacts of the climate crisis, the Padre Dam Municipal Water District has voted to reinstate late fees and water shutoffs for delinquent customers, many of whom are only just beginning to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. The decision puts countless East County residents at risk of being without water during an extraordinary, and deadly, crisis of heat and drought.
On Saturday, the executive board of San Diego Democrats for Environmental Action (SDCDEA) called on the Padre Dam Municipal Water District to reverse course, agreeing the decision is exacerbating a growing environmental and social justice issue. Several SDCDEA board members called the Padre Dam Water District decision "callous."
It's unconscionable that four of the Padre Dam board members would think it's a good idea to reimpose late fees, and even worse, water shut-off measures at a time when East County residents face life-threatening temperatures," said Cody Petterson, outgoing president of San Diego Democrats for Environment Action. "With this action the board has made it abundantly clear how little regard they have for the people and communities they represent."
Like other water districts throughout California, the Padre Dam Municipal Water District had suspended late fees and water shutoffs for non-payment during the COVID-19 pandemic.
But on a 4-1 vote earlier this month, taken at the height of a punishing heat wave and persistent drought, the district's board elected to resume late fees and discontinue water service for residents who have not paid their bills. Padre Dam Director Suzanne Till was the lone vote in opposition.
Till said in the July 15th issue of the San Diego Union-Tribune, "I don't want families worrying about water during the hottest part of the year, which is August and September." Till had previously asked the board to hold off on reinstating late fees and shut-offs at least until school resumes, where children have access to water and air conditioning.
The majority of the board, however, placed greater importance on recouping some of the $528,000 in outstanding monies owed from past due accounts, despite California Governor Gavin Newsom's recent announcement the state is making $2 billion in assistance available for past-due water and utility bills.
Padre Dam Municipal Water District, which serves Santee, Alpine, Crest, and other East County communities, will resume charging late fees on unpaid utility bills as of Aug. 1. The district has also indicated it will resume water shutoffs for non-payment beginning Oct. 1, thereby setting the stage for an environmental justice conflict in an area of the county home to many residents and farmers struggling economically due to COVID-19 pandemic.
East County resident Bonnie Price, who e-mailed the board to urge its members not to reimpose late fees and water shut-off measures, says the district could better use its resources to connect residents with the utility bill relief offered by the state, and perhaps assist residents in completing the required paperwork to access state funds.
"It's the hottest time of the year. You can't have people worrying about water," said Price, who does not live within the Padre Dam Water District. "The board simply kept saying, 'We run a business here. This is a business. We can't allow people to get away with not paying bills.' It was patently obvious they're not concerned about the people they represent."
Photo by Tommy Hough
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