The California Water Association (CWA) filed comments on July 30, 2018, on a Proposed Decision (PD) from California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) President Michael Picker that extends the disaster relief protections for customers adopted by the CPUC last year in the aftermath of the Northern California wildfires to future disasters in all CPUC-regulated water utility service territories. These protections will remain in place on an interim basis until the rulemaking (R.18-03-011, Order Instituting Rulemaking Regarding Emergency Disaster Relief Program to Support California Residents) concludes with the establishment of a permanent customer protections program.

In its comments, CWA expressed support for the CPUC’s swift action in extending last year’s protections on a temporary basis but raised several procedural issues of concern. Chief among them was that an interim CPUC-ordered disaster relief program limited to wildfire disasters should not automatically become the basis to prejudge the particulars of a permanent program that encompasses all disasters and varying circumstances.

CWA also noted that the PD uses the terms “consumer” and “customer” interchangeably throughout the document and requested that all such references be to customers. The reason is that a utility “customer” is the entity of record and is the only person with whom the utility has a legal and business relationship. Accordingly, it is the customer that will be eligible for disaster relief, whether interim or permanent.

CWA also requested that the final decision include non-residential water customers as being eligible for interim disaster relief resulting from a wildfire. Currently, only electric and gas non-residential customers are eligible for CPUC-authorized relief, and CWA stressed that such water customers should be afforded the same relief opportunities.

With respect to cost recovery, CWA requested that the costs associated with post-disaster customer protection activities recorded by the water utilities in their Catastrophic Event Memorandum Accounts (CEMAs) be recoverable across each utility’s entire customer base, rather than imposing that obligation on only the ratemaking area within which the disaster occurred. CWA said that if the CPUC intends to assist customers struggling with the after-effects of a devastating disaster, it should relieve those same customers of a cost-recovery burden often made acute by the mere circumstance of living in a small district (especially if that smaller district is affected by the loss of active service connections due to disaster).

The PD, if modified and approved with CWA’s recommendations at the CPUC’s Open Meeting on August 9, 2018, will include the following customer protections for residential water and sewer customers upon a declaration of a state of emergency for a wildfire:

  • Activation of the utility’s CEMA;
  • Make insurance claims on all costs and expenses incurred as a result of the fires, and credit insurance payments to their CEMA;
  • Work cooperatively with affected customers to resolve unpaid bills and minimize disconnections for non-payment;
  • Waive reconnection or facilities fees for affected customers and suspend deposits for affected customers who must reconnect to the system;
  • Provide reasonable payment options to affected customers; and
  • Waive bills for victims who have lost their homes or businesses. Costs of lost revenues may be included in the appropriate CEMA account and recovered across the utility’s entire customer base.
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