Amid Pandemic, Phoenix's New Water Restrictions Leave Homes With a Trickle

When families can't pay their water bills, Phoenix is restricting their water flow instead of cutting them off entirely during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some workers say that policy isn't enough.
When families can't pay their water bills, Phoenix is restricting their water flow instead of cutting them off entirely during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some workers say that policy isn't enough. Elizabeth Whitman
The second week of March, Phoenix announced that as part of its response to the new coronavirus crisis, it would not cut off water to people's homes, even if they couldn't pay their bills.

For the homes whose water service had already been cut off for delinquency, the city would restore "low-flow" water service, it promised, starting March 12.

But the Water Services Department, which has more than 1.5 million customers, so far has not been applying that edict equally across all homes, because it hasn't had the right parts, known as restrictor plates, to fit certain sizes of water meters, according to an employee of the Water Services Department.

Houses with water meters that are three-quarters or five-eighths of an inch in diameter have had their water curtailed with the installation of a small, fibrous disk punched with a hole the size of a pinhead, that employee said, but to date, those with one-inch meters have not.

click to enlarge A restrictor plate, next to a nickel. - NEW TIMES SOURCE
A restrictor plate, next to a nickel.
New Times source
Families who get the low flow barely have enough water to shower, he said.

The employee, who requested anonymity out of fear of retaliation, contacted Phoenix New Times because "there is no civil, moral, ethical reason for this practice to be implemented at this time."

He added, “At a time when being sanitary is such a need, we’re going to restrict their water flow?”

Other major utilities, including Arizona Public Service, Salt River Project, and Tucson Electric Power, have halted all shutoffs for nonpayment for as long as the COVID-19 crisis lasts.

Another person, who has close knowledge of the restrictions and requested anonymity for fear of retaliation, confirmed both of the worker's claims.

For people in homes with smaller water meters, "you're getting a trickle of water from the city," that person said, but for the people in homes with larger water meters, the flow has stayed the same.

"How is that fair?" the person asked. "Just leave everybody on until this is over. Please!"

Both sources said that the city should not be curtailing people's water during an unprecedented health crisis, when both hygiene and compassion are more important than ever.

The Water Services Department disputed that it discriminates as it restricts the flow of water to people's homes. It also says it has enough parts to restrict water meters of all sizes.

"Your information is incorrect. We do have 1-inch low-flow devices," spokesperson Stephanie Bracken told New Times.

After being shown an email, obtained by New Times, from a Water Services Department supervisor from March 17 that explicitly said, "1[-inch] and greater restrictor plates are not available," Bracken said that on that day, the city did not have those specific restrictor plates.

She also said that when the pandemic first hit, the city's priority was to restore service to customers who had been cut off, and that "we did not at that time have enough low-flow devices on hand for all customers that were delinquent."

But in the weeks since, she said, "We have been able to regroup and get the plates in stock," adding that those larger plates had come in "recently" and were "manufactured in-house by staff."

However, the Water Services Department employee said Thursday that those plates were still not available, although he knew the city was "working on them"; Bracken said that the parts might not yet have reached all workers.

According to the department employee and the person with close knowledge of the matter, since the city announced its new policy, it has returned water service (albeit a restricted flow) to 900 homes whose water had been cut for unpaid bills.

Bracken said that the city is still installing restrictor plates on delinquent accounts and "expect[s] to be caught up in about two weeks."

She disputed the claim that the restricted water supply, which she said flows at a rate of nearly a half-gallon per minute, isn't enough for people to live on.

click to enlarge Water flowing out of a faucet at a half-gallon per minute. - ELIZABETH WHITMAN
Water flowing out of a faucet at a half-gallon per minute.
Elizabeth Whitman

"The amount of water customers receive on low-flow service is more than adequate for cooking, cleaning, and sanitation," she said. "Although low-flow water service for residential customers requires adjustment, revenue collection is necessary to avoid an even greater community disaster in which there is not enough money to continue to operate and maintain the public drinking water system."

She added, "Our focus is on helping customers that are in difficult financial circumstances by offering payment arrangements ... and by continuing to provide water service in lieu of disconnections through our low-flow program."

The department employee said that the actual rate of water flow can vary, depending on water pressure and other factors. He estimated the flow to be about half of what Bracken said — about a quart per minute — and said that if the tiny hole in the disk gets clogged, it becomes even slower or might stop entirely.

He also said the city's policy puts workers in a difficult position, forcing them to go to people's homes and telling families their water will be severely curtailed during a time of incredible anxiety. Employees don't want to do it, he said.

"There’s been people crying," he said. "Some people are pretty desperate right now."
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Elizabeth Whitman was a staff writer for Phoenix New Times from March 2019 to April 2020.