Some 125,000 households and businesses in Guasave, Sinaloa, woke up Tuesday to no running water after the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE) cut off power to a water treatment plant and six wells for nonpayment of a 22-million-peso debt (US $1.07 million).
The city’s water board manager, Nubia Yazmin Puentes Llanos, said the cutoff had left most of the city and 16 surrounding rural communities dry.
The board and the CFE have an agreement to whittle down what was a 49.9-million-peso debt, she said, of which it had paid off about 27 million. The CFE cutoff had come without warning and without consideration of the fact that the city currently has 62 cases of Covid-19, she said.
Due to concerns about public safety, Puentes said the board is turning for help to the Mexican National Association of Water and Sanitization Businesses, a nonprofit organization, and Sinaloa’s state-owned water treatment commission.
However, electrical service was restored Tuesday afternoon after the mayor and other local politicians interceded with the electricity commission. The municipality also deployed police officers to its pumping facilities to prevent CFE workers from cutting off the power again.
The CFE often cuts off power to municipal and even state and federal agencies for nonpayment of debt, affecting thousands of municipal customers of electrically powered water pumping and treatment systems. However, since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, the practice has become more complicated and fraught due to the need for clean water to combat spread of the virus.
In June, the commission cut off power to a federally owned wastewater treatment plant in La Paz, Baja California Sur, run by the federally-owned National Water Commission (Conagua), although thanks to an available emergency electricity generating plant, service was not interrupted. However, Governor Carlos Mendoza Davis said if the emergency plant had not been available, the risk would have been “enormous and unacceptable for the population” of La Paz.
In August, the CFE turned off power to pumping stations in Cuernavaca, Morelos, for not paying a 111-million-peso debt. The cutoff affected 100 neighborhoods.
Also in August, the CFE cut off power to 34,000 customers with overdue electricity bills throughout Tabasco, including the state’s commission for water and sanitization (CEAS) offices in Villahermosa, which at the time owed CFE over 5 million pesos.
CEAS director Armando Padilla Herrera at the time warned that the CEAS owes debts in other cities around Tabasco, and that if CFE decided to cut off power to its water plants, the resulting situation would be a “crime against humanity” that would put public health in jeopardy during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The coronavirus pandemic appears to have created a perfect debt storm for some municipal and state utility providers. Many regularly carry outstanding debts to the CFE, but in some cases the pandemic has pushed their debts high enough that the commission has chosen to implement cutoffs.
In Guasave, for example, Puentes said that revenues for the municipally-owned entity have gone down 50% since the start of the pandemic, which has made it difficult for the entity to meet its financial commitments. Although Puentes said the board has reached out to CFE officials, they have been told that payment in full of the back debt is the only acceptable option.
In Reynosa, when power was cut off to the city’s water commission last month, its general manager Jesus Maria Moreno told local media that the commission was behind in its payments due to the pandemic, a period which has seen lower customer use and also fewer bills being paid on time.