The early days of the COVID-19 pandemic were uncertain for all, especially for those living near or on the poverty line. Thousands of US households were disproportionately affected by shutdowns and restrictions, unable to pay water and utility bills.
With no nationwide moratorium on utility shutoffs, a patchwork of state-by-state policies arose at different times and durations, including mandatory moratoriums for Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands to protect residents against electricity and water shutoffs.
In December 2020, with many moratoriums still in place, Congress passed the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, which allocated $638 million to the Low Income Household Water Assistance Program, which would aid households with water and wastewater costs. In March of the following year, under the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, an additional $500 million was appropriated to LIHWAP. The 1.1 billion in funds from the ARP and CAA have been allocated to grantees in 49 states (North Dakota declined assistance), five territories, including American Samoa, Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands, as well as 97 tribal nations. Funds for the US territories total $5.6 million and must be spent by December 21, 2023.
LIHWAP attends to three priority groups: households already disconnected, households with pending water disconnections, and households seeking assistance with current water bills. Federal poverty guidelines govern eligibility for the five territories, and aid availability ranges from $1 to $2,000.
Carlos Torres, a program specialist with LIHWAP, ensures that grantees in the regions—designated officials within the state, tribe, or territory—have the tools they need to facilitate the program. LIHWAP launched a dashboard to track this temporary program’s progress and provide data for longer-term solutions to water access. LIHWAP has helped to expose the complexity of water services in the US and its territories as there are over 50,000 water providers in the nation, 547 in the five US territories alone. In an interview with the Public Policy Institute of California, Torres explained that, at times, it’s challenging to get water providers on board with the program as some providers have to change their billing systems and services to accommodate LIHWAP.
Program design and implementation are left to the discretion of local directors to best address the population’s needs. For the US territories, this has required identifying areas of “high water burden,” meaning households that spend a significant percentage of their income on water and wastewater bills.
Funds dispersal for Puerto Rico began in February of 2022, and the territory’s LIHWAP plan will service up to 100,000 households. The median household income in Puerto Rico is about half that of the continental U.S. The island’s poverty rate is over 40 percent, catalyzed by catastrophic events such as hurricanes Maria and Irma in 2017, earthquakes in the south in 2020, and the lingering COVID-19 pandemic.
When asked what this program has revealed about water security in Puerto Rico specifically, Torres replied that the “Office of Community Services looks forward to learning more about water security in Puerto Rico through the lens of LIHWAP.”