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COVID-19 and wastewater utilities

  • COVID-19 and wastewater utilities
  • As originally published in Water Online on April 23, 2020

About the blog

Itai Boneh
Product Research Lead at Kando Clear Upstream
ACCIONA
Idrica

Today, the world is facing unprecedented circumstances that are affecting every single sector and the water service is no exception. Although there is still more research to be done, this article has collected the currently available information to highlight how wastewater utilities have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. More specifically, this article will attempt to look at the outbreak’s impact on utilities, the potential hazards, and the predominant solution.

The world’s municipalities have rightfully considered all water services essential during these trying times. Therefore, utilities have to continue their operations despite not being as apt to meet the resident's demands. Like any other service, utilities' most important asset is their human capital, and like all other people, utility operators are just as prone to being infected. As such a sweeping virus, the operation of many utilities has become less efficient and their concerns have risen.

After administering a survey to 534 water utilities, AWWA had found that over half of the respondents were anticipating increased personnel absence in the coming months3. Moreover, many utilities are facing personal protective equipment (PPE) shortages, which is only going to further the personnel’s health risk and increase the chances of operator absence19. Concurrently with the recent economic collapse, many utilities have been lax on having people pay their water bill on time13,14. In spite of their honorability, the same survey by AWWA has found that 64 percent of utilities expect cashflow hardships in the next two months3.


Image provided by the author

These internal burdens would have been enough to put many utilities in jeopardy, but a new set of external pressures has added even more weight to their adversities. A departure from the standard flow path of wastewater networks has caused dangerous circumstances and has many operators off-guard4. The notorious toilet paper shortage has led to many people flushing objects such as wet wipes and paper towels; all of which are not suited for our collection systems as it induces blockages and overflows. This issue has become so infamous that even the New York Times had published an article calling Americans to only flush toilet paper10. For a more local perspective, Scott Goodinson, Wastewater Superintendent of Narragansett, Rhode Island, has said that the residential clogging situation has gotten so bad that "In my 30 years in the business, it’s always been a problem, but this is the worst I’ve ever seen it”9. As toilet paper shortages continue, the time and money required to unclog blockages is only exacerbating the issues utilities already face.

An additional but sometimes unrecognized problem with the recent changes in flow is residence time deviations. Our collection systems are built with projected wastewater volumes in mind so that loads are not too high or too little. When wastewater flow is fewer and slower than what the pipe sloping was designed to carry, the slower residence time enables hydrogen sulfide (H2S) production — a chemical that creates the repugnant smell we associate with sewage and corrosion of infrastructure — or methane production — an explosive gas at high concentrations1,7. An IoT-based monitoring company has observed that in certain cities the reduction in industrial activity has curbed effluent flow and induced methane production. Now, the utilities of those municipalities have to concern themselves with an explosive gas diffusing throughout their piping.

It is time to allocate more of our focus and resources to wastewater utilities, and in doing so, ensure that the public’s health does not grow worse than it already has been

Changes in government protocol have also elevated the potential risks of our sewage system. In response to the epidemic, the U.S EPA, for instance, has allowed industries to forego sampling and submitting regulatory reports20. Although many industries have been required to temporarily shut down, there are still many industries — especially in food production — that have ramped up production and are using the government’s new leniency as a call to pollute freely. As a result, certain areas of the wastewater network may actually see an increase in pollution events4 20.

Many recently published articles have discussed how COVID-19’s ability to survive in the sewage system has been a useful proxy to detect total cases in a municipality11 15. What these articles neglect to discuss is the public health risk that is associated with these findings. Granting that there has yet to be a publication about residents contracting coronavirus from sewage, it is important to mention the obvious fact that COVID-19 and many of the other diseases found in wastewater are a public health risk, and the survival of these diseases only increases with pollution8. When combining all of the factors listed above, utilities are prone to becoming overwhelmed. If we link this heightened utility vulnerability with more wastewater reaching the surface from increased overflows, the public becomes susceptible to major health risks17. It is time to allocate more of our focus and resources to wastewater utilities, and in doing so, ensure that the public’s health does not grow worse than it already has been.

The automation of the wastewater sector has been a significant movement in recent years. This technological adaptation has allowed utilities to promptly respond to network complications long before the pandemic. However, the advantages of digitization can be especially appreciated under these circumstances. By increasing the monitoring capacity of utilities, operators can manage their networks continuously and remotely. So, while some operators may no longer be able to work on site, they can still manage the utility from home. When asked how he would have been better prepared for the COVID-19 outbreak, Chau Sai-Wai, the Deputy Director of Hong Kong’s Water Supplies (one of the largest and most advanced water utilities in the world) responded: “Technology keeps on advancing. There may be more opportunity for working from home and more remote working”18.

Many utilities are hesitant to adopt a digitized network due to the high initial investment

Many utilities are hesitant to adopt a digitized network due to the high initial investment. As discussed in the third paragraph, utilities are even more so in a cash crunch and may feel like they need to be extra frugal these days. However, the returns from a digitized system are rapid. For example, a utility from Pima County, Arizona, has recently reported that overflow from clogged systems can cost anywhere from $5000 to $35,0006; if this utility were to deploy a water level sensor, then it would have been able to detect and react to a clog before it developed into in an overflow, thus saving a considerable amount as compared to the original costs. President of the Water Finance Research Foundation and CFO of Colorado’s third-largest utility, Greg Baird, described the benefits of investing in a digitized water sector by stating: “These technologies don’t just make economic sense. They ensure line of sight on critical operations, effective business continuity of water and wastewater services and, ultimately, resilience against risk and uncertainty now and into the future”2.

When discussing the efficiency of wastewater utilities, we must recognize why this service was deemed essential in the first place. The public is reliant on this sector to maintain their health. This epidemic is threatening the operation of wastewater utilities all over the world, and by association, is amplifying the threat to public health. Digitization of the wastewater network has been proven as a solution to overcome workforce limitation, revenue shortages, network complications, etc.14. Once wastewater utilities deploy greater automation projects into their service, these utilities will be equipped to handle the challenges we see now and the challenges that will indubitably emerge in the future. Thus, utilities will maintain the operational continuity that facilitates public health.

References

1. Attal, A., Brigodiot, M., Camacho, P., & Manem, J. (1992). Biological Mechanisms of H2S Formation in Sewer Pipes. Water Science And Technology, 26(3-4), 907-914. doi: 10.2166/wst.1992.0471

2. Baird, G. (2020). The Impact of COVID-19: Digital Solutions to Mitigate Infrastructure Costs & Public Health Risks | Water Finance & Management. Retrieved 12 April 2020, from https://waterfm.com/the-impact-of-covid-19-digital-solutions/?oly_enc_id...

3. COVID-19 Utility and Water Sector Organization Impact Survey (March 25-30, 2020). (2020). Retrieved 12 April 2020, from https://www.awwa.org/Portals/0/AWWA/Communications/AWWACOVID2ndSurveyPub...

4. Curial, I. (2020). Corona's Effect's: More Water Consumption, Wore Wipes in Sewers. Retrieved 10 April 2020, from https://www.ynet.co.il/articles/0,7340,L-5705170,00.html

5. Encinas, J. (2020). Wastewater departments: Keep your TP alternatives in the trash, not the sewers. Retrieved 7 April 2020, from https://www.gvnews.com/news/coronavirus/wastewater-departments-keep-your...

6. Experts Share Advice on Continuity of Operations During Coronavirus Pandemic - WEF Highlights. (2020). Retrieved 25 March 2020, from https://news.wef.org/experts-share-advice-on-continuity-of-operations-du...

7. Guisasola, A., de Haas, D., Keller, J., & Yuan, Z. (2008). Methane formation in sewer systems. Water Research, 42(6-7), 1421-1430. doi: 10.1016/j.watres.2007.10.014

8. Health risks associated with wastewater use. (2020). Retrieved 3 April 2020, from http://www.fao.org/3/W5367E/w5367e04.htm

9. Kuffner, A. (2020). R.I. wastewater treatment plants’ scourge: ‘Flushable’ wipes. Retrieved 1 April 2020, from https://www.providencejournal.com/news/20200324/ri-wastewater-treatment-...

10. Levenson, M. (2020). Americans Coping With the Coronavirus Are Clogging Toilets. Retrieved 17 March 2020, from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/21/us/flushable-wipes-clog.html

11. Mallapaty, S. (2020). How sewage could reveal true scale of coronavirus outbreak. Retrieved 11 April 2020, from https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-00973-x

12. Markus, L. (2020). Coronavirus calls utilities to humanitarian role — how to help troubled customers in this time of need. Retrieved 23 March 2020, from https://www.utilitydive.com/news/coronavirus-calls-utilities-to-humanita...

13. Middleton, L. (2020). Water companies freeze charges for people hit by coronavirus | Metro News. Retrieved 15 April 2020, from https://metro.co.uk/2020/03/25/water-companies-offer-payments-pause-stru...

14. Online Water Quality Monitoring in Distribution Systems. (2018). Retrieved 15 January 2020, from https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2018-05/documents/owqm-ds_gui...

15. Palou, N. (2020). Las aguas residuales podrían revelar como de extendido está el coronavirus. Retrieved 16 April 2020, from https://www.lavanguardia.com/natural/20200407/48375255390/aguas-residual...

16. Press, V. (2020). Israeli Firm Using IoT To Halt Looming COVID-19 Wastewater Crisis | Environment News. Retrieved 13 April 2020, from https://nocamels.com/2020/04/israeli-firm-iot-covid-19-wastewater-crisis/

17. Reynolds, K. (2020). Sewage Overflows Impact US Cities/Public Health - WCP Online. Retrieved 2 April 2020, from http://wcponline.com/2014/12/15/sewage-overflows-impact-us-citiespublic-...

18. Sai-Wai, C. (2020). How Water Utilities are Implementing Business Continuity During COVID-19. Video from https://video.buffer.com/v/5e7764f43d036b2cef2e2392?utm_content=buffer12...

19. Saiyid, A. (2020). Water Utilities May Face Virus-Linked Protective Gear Shortages. Retrieved 13 April 2020, from https://news.bloomberglaw.com/environment-and-energy/water-utilities-may...

20. Scipioni, J. (2020). 'An open invitation to pollute': Billionaire Tom Steyer on the EPA allowing businesses to self-monitor during coronavirus pandemic. Retrieved 1 April 2020, from https://www.cnbc.com/2020/03/30/tom-steyer-on-epa-limiting-environmental...

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