Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie
Operation Fuel Executive Director Brenda Watson and Rep. Matt Lesser (Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie)

HARTFORD, CT — Operation Fuel, which provides financial help to people who fall short on their home heating and cooling bills, is piloting a program for Greater Hartford residents who are unable to make their water payments.

The nonprofit has teamed up with the Metropolitan District Commission, which provides water and sewer service eight towns, to create a fund that helps households that have fallen short. The water agency has commited $50,000 to the fund and may add a $1 “good neighbor” option so that its other customers can chip in too and help out those who may be struggling.

Over a six month period between April and September the MDC gave $44,000 to 111 households who had not paid their bills. An estimated 38 percent had a past due balance, 52 percent of the 111 were about to be shut off, and 10 percent were able to restore their service with grants of up to $500. Of those who received assistance from the program, 86 percent were homeowners and 14 percent were renters. An estimated 42 percent were employed, 25 percent were on Social Security, and 10 percent were on Social Security Disability.

Water and wastewater services are becoming unaffordable for many households as expenses continue to increase, Brenda Watson, executive director of Operation Fuel, said.

She said it’s a trend they’ve been witnessing for the past six or eight years.

Water and sewer service costs are trending upward at the moment because of the “much needed infrastructure upgrades and maintenance,” Watson said.

At the same time federal grant funds that have historically been available to subsidize local investment in water and wastewater infrastructure have largely been eliminated.

House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said he hopes the federal government will include water and sewer infrastructure as part of any infrastructure funding it approves.

The incoming Congress is divided with the U.S. House controlled by the Democratic Party and the U.S. Senate controlled by Republicans. However, U.S. Rep. John B. Larson believes they will be able to find common ground over infrastructure.

In the meantime, with few federal resources, Watson said they are also challenged by the fragmented nature of water and sewer companies in Connecticut, which are structured differently from one town to the next.

Rep. Matt Lesser, D-Middletown, said he heard about the issue on the campaign trail from mostly elderly people on fixed incomes.

“I think we as a legislature should focus on this,” Lesser added Wednesday at a press conference.

Ritter said he receives about 25 to 30 calls per year from constituents who need help paying their water bills.

Earlier this year, the General Assembly adjourned before taking action on the State Water Plan.

The almost four-year process utilized extensive public and stakeholder input and scientific data to create a report that cost more than $1 million.

The proposed plan created a framework for sustainable water management, which would protect public drinking water supplies and environmental health. It’s unclear if the General Assembly will try and tackle the issue again in 2019.