HARTFORD - Low income households are struggling to afford one of lifeâ€™s most basic needs, water, according to state officials who met Wednesday to discuss the problem.
As costly infrastructure improvements drive water and sewer rates higher while wages remain stagnant, more families are falling behind on their water bills and risk shut-off, a panel including state water officials and representatives of Operation Fuel and the Metropolitan District Commission agreed.
â€śThe last thing you want to do is shut off water,â€ť said Lori Mathieu, a Drinking Water Division leader with the state Department of Public Health and a member of the stateâ€™s Water Planning Council. â€śThatâ€™s the wrong thing to do to a family.â€ť
Operation Fuel, which provides energy assistance to low-income families, and the MDC were able to partner to provide help to 111 of the water companies by providing $500 in grants.
The group that met Wednesday at the Legislative Office Building included Jack Betkoski of the state Public Utilities Regulatory Authority, chairman of the WPC.
Many concluded that a greater awareness campaign would encourage people to seek help before they are at risk of a shut off notice and would encourage water companies to provide assistance, much in the same way the MDC is doing.
â€śThere are water companies out there than can do that,â€ť Betsy Gara, executive director of the Connecticut Water Works Association, said of the MDC program. â€śItâ€™s about providing other utilities with information and models on how to do it.â€ť
Connecticutâ€™s public drinking water system is complex and multilayered, with the DPH overseeing 2,500 distinct public water systems, Mathieu told the group. Some water systems have as few as three customers, while others have thousands or tens of thousands.
Many rate increases are regulated by PURA, but municipal water systemsâ€™ hikes are not, Betkoski said. Consumers wind up bearing the brunt of infrastructure improvements, which in most cases must be done.
But at the same time up to as many as 500,000 state households are struggling with meeting basic needs, including paying their water bills, said Brenda Watson, executive director of Operation Fuel.
â€śNobody wants to shut anyoneâ€™s water off,â€ť said Bart Halloran, counsel for the MDC. â€śTo have some kind of assistance program now is important but it will be much more important in the future. There are people who are forced into a position between choosing paying for medication and paying for water.â€ť
Water conservation awareness is also another way that consumers can keep water costs under control. But for Watson, it wasnâ€™t the only answer to the growing problem. â€śItâ€™s also about folksâ€™ ability to make a decent wage and a decent living,â€ť she said. â€śUntil wages step up to the plate, weâ€™re always going to continue to see this.â€ť
Lisa Backus can be reached at 860-801-5066 or Lbackus@centralctcommunications.com.