The San Antonio Water System still has $2.1 million in relief funds for customers with past due bills who can prove pandemic-related hardship, but they must apply by the end of September.

The number of customers behind on their water bills has dropped significantly since SAWS reinstated disconnections last fall, but the amount of money outstanding is still three times what it was pre-pandemic, SAWS Vice President of Customer Experience Mary Bailey said Tuesday during the utility’s monthly board meeting.

“It took us nearly two years to get into this situation, and it’s going to take a while to get completely out,” Bailey said. “We have made significant progress over the last nine months.”

SAWS has used about $7.9 million of the $10 million allocated by the city from its American Rescue Plan Act funds, Bailey added, which has helped roughly 16,000 customers pay off up to $700 each to the utility.

With that assistance, customers have stepped up and started paying their bills or have entered into payment plans, Bailey said. For the first six months of 2022, customer receipts are up $40 million, or 10% more than the same period in 2021, she said.

After the utility expanded eligibility to automatically qualified customers living in the city’s lowest-income census tracts, it was able to help another 13,000 customers just since May.

The utility’s COVID-19 relief plan, approved by the SAWS board last September, has also played a role in getting customers back on track, Bailey said.

About 1,000 customers have received leak adjustments, which in turn has relieved about $1.8 million in debt, and more than 7,000 customers who were automatically enrolled in a 48-month payment plan have now “satisfied their obligation under those plans,” she said.

SAWS efforts stand in juxtaposition to CPS Energy, which has also seen the number of past-due customers shrink since resuming disconnections last fall, but has seen the amount it is owed continue to rise.

Bailey noted that extreme heat and higher prices for natural gas have pushed CPS Energy bills higher; water bills have risen somewhat because of the weather, she said, but not by the same rate.

She also said SAWS has successfully communicated to customers that they have plenty of assistance available.

“I think our customers have understood that they need to work with us and we will work with them to get it taken care of,” Bailey said.

San Antonio residents enrolled in a payment plan or affordability program with SAWS who can show proof of hardship caused by the coronavirus pandemic are eligible for up to $700 from the remaining $2.1 million.

SAWS also offers assistance through the federal Low-Income Housing Water Assistance Program. SAWS has $6.7 million available for that program, but it must be issued by Sept. 30, 2023. Eligible residents must reside in Bexar County, and earn at or below 150% of the federal poverty level.

Also Tuesday, SAWS’ board took steps toward withdrawing from Kendall County, by selling certain water and sewer “certificates of convenience and necessity,” to a private water company. CNNs define the areas where SAWS must provide service if requested.

Currently, SAWS has no customers in Kendall County. After receiving a request for service for a new development that would have required millions in additional infrastructure, the utility began discussing divesting itself from the county.

Under the agreement approved Tuesday, water company SJWTX Inc. will pay roughly $50,000 to acquire the certificates. The San Antonio City Council must also approve the move, as will the state’s public utilities commission.

Lindsey Carnett covers the environment, science and utilities for the San Antonio Report. A native San Antonian, she graduated from Texas A&M University in 2016 with a degree in telecommunication media...