THE number of regional Victorians seeking hardship support for water bills has exploded by a factor of five since August, new Essential Services Commission data has revealed.
The number of customers in debt has grown despite water providers' efforts to publicise their hardship policies, the Essential Services Commission has found after collecting data surveys of 5800 people.
The commission tracked people's views up until April, including the August 2020 period when the second wave of COVID-19 peaked and began subsiding across regional Victorian areas.
Separate Coliban Water statistics could suggest the hip-pocket pain triggered by the pandemic has left a mark.
The company says about 30 per cent of its customers have received a government concession for as much as half of their bills.
"We encourage customers to be open with us and we can assure you that your situation will remain confidential," managing director Damian Wells said.
The company has left the door open to more support and consultations with customers about prices as the year and pandemic roll on.
"Our message remains [that] we are here to support you, and we're all in this together," Mr Wells said.
In good news for Coliban, the Essential Services Commission's survey has found that trust in the water company has continued to grow since August.
It has seen gains on the more than six out of 10 points customers previously awarded it, though it is still lagging behind other Victorian water companies, some of which have more than seven points.
Below: how your water provider ranks (story continues below document):
Coliban also made gains for overall satisfaction at a time when nine of the top 10 water providers' results fell.
However, customers' perception of Coliban's value for money has dropped very slightly.
Mr Wells put that drop down to the number of customers who have felt vulnerable because of the pandemic.
He said Coliban would talk more with customers over the next 12 months as it put together its next submission to the government about pricing past 2023.
Elsewhere in the state, metropolitan customers appear to have been the hardest hit by the pandemic and associated economic fallout, Essential Services Commission water director Marcus Crudden said.
"Our monitoring of water businesses shows there has been a good response to assisting customers in need, however, there is great variability in performance between water businesses," he said.
"This suggests there may be opportunities for some businesses to learn from others.
"Customers can now compare how their provider has responded against other water businesses, with some regional providers leading the way."