Suburban streets continue to be bought, sold, and constructed in the city's far Westside.
San Antonio Water System is resuming disconnections to past-due customers for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic began. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Roughly 25,000 San Antonio residential accounts are still at risk of having their water shut off as the San Antonio Water System resumed disconnections Tuesday.

While only 127 residential customers and 20 commercial customers were scheduled to have their water turned off on the first day of disconnections since the coronavirus pandemic began, thousands more could face shutoff in the coming weeks — and that number is ticking back up, Vice President of Customer Experience Mary Bailey said.

The water utility ceased shutting off customers’ water service for nonpayment in March 2020. In June, SAWS announced it would resume disconnecting delinquent accounts in October. By then, the number of residential customers more than 60 days past due had swelled from 5,000 before the pandemic to more than 52,000.

By the beginning of August, that number had grown to 62,000. In an effort to minimize the number of disconnections, the utility launched a plan to automatically enroll many delinquent customers in a payment plan. The utility also created a $41.2 million reserve to help pay off customer debts. That reduced the number of delinquent residential accounts facing disconnection down to about 16,000. But that number continues to rise, Bailey said.

The utility is a business and as such must start to recoup its losses, said Robert Puente, president and CEO of SAWS. “However, we’re doing it with as much care and understanding as possible. … Our No. 1 goal is not to disconnect anyone.”

Bailey told the San Antonio Report that SAWS has been in talks with other local Texas water utilities that are going through similar processes. The other utilities said that once customers were faced with the reality of their water being turned off, they often paid their balance, Bailey said.

Customers whose water was turned off Tuesday have been receiving notifications via phone and mail for a minimum of eight weeks, said Anne Hayden, communications manager of SAWS. They were sent bills in August, have received multiple phone calls, and were sent a final notice in September.

The customers who will face disconnections first are those who have the largest balances, have been past due the longest, and who have not reached out to SAWS at all, Puente said. From there, it will be customers who haven’t paid any of their balance even if they have contacted SAWS, and then customers enrolled in SAWS’ affordability discount program who haven’t paid any of their balance.

“Unfortunately we’re starting to see [auto-enrolled] folks not make their payments and that’s concerning,” Bailey said. “But maybe they’ll address it, or maybe it’ll take us getting out there to turn it off for them to get their attention, but as I said, we’re more than happy to turn it back on.”

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Lindsey Carnett

Lindsey Carnett covers the environment, science and utilities for the San Antonio Report.