The water sector’s emphasis on preparedness for emergencies and risk will be especially useful as the current global coronavirus outbreak (COVID-19) continues to escalate.
According to preliminary results from an AWWA member survey (see full graph), absenteeism and continuity of operations are the major areas of expected challenges from COVID-19 for water utilities. Other concerns include impacts on field operations and interruptions of treatment chemical supply chains.
Water utilities and other service providers continue to carry out their day-to-day responsibilities of providing safe and reliable water and sanitation services to communities, many with detailed emergency preparedness plans already in hand.
“As stewards of public health and the environment, water professionals are well versed on managing risks associated with protecting the water supply and planning for routine and extreme incidents. The coronavirus situation creates potential workforce and supply chain issues relative to utility continuity of service,” said Kevin Morley (pictured below), federal relations manager with the American Water Works Association (AWWA).
“Thanks to the work that utilities are doing to comply with section 2013 of America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2018, the sector is already in the process of reviewing threats that could impact utilities operation and adjusting emergency response plans as appropriate,” he added. “AWWA has supported this readiness by providing a Utility Risk and Resilience Certificate Program and many other resources.”
COVID-19 is a serious challenge, and water utilities should be prepared to communicate with their community the actions they are taking to sustain operations. The COVID-19 virus has not been detected in drinking-water supplies and based on current evidence, the risk to water supplies is low. Conventional water treatment methods, which include disinfection with oxidants like chlorine, are effective for inactivating COVID-19. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends that Americans continue to use and drink tap water as usual.
Utilities should be prepared for potential impacts to operations, including staff absenteeism, and to respond to customer inquiries about water safety, according to Morley. This includes staying informed about any measures needed to protect both public health in general and water professionals in particular based on guidance from EPA, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and other partners.
Actions for water utilities to consider:
Review ability to implement workforce contingency to sustain operations, which may include housing staff on site or modifications to typical shifts, including communication with staff on expected roles and responsibilities.
Coordinate with local public health officials to ensure utility workforce has access to facilities and can make necessary repairs to distribution or collection systems if travel restrictions are imposed in a community.
Communicate frequently with suppliers of essential treatment chemicals and supplies.
Communicate with your customers about the safety of the water supply per EPA and CDC guidance.
Consider alternative payment methods for typical face-to-face transactions with customers.
Consider postponing customer shut-offs to sustain hygiene and sanitation during the outbreak.
Other sources of guidance particular to COVID-19 include:
AWWA’s coronavirus resource page
EPA’s COVID-19 resource page for drinking water, wastewater and disinfectants
CDC's resource page about water transmission and COVID-19
The World Health Organization’s March 3 technical brief on water, sanitation, hygiene and waste management
Occupational Health and Science Administration (OSHA) guidelines for COVID-19 control and prevention
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency’s materials on impacts to critical infrastructure from COVID-19
The Water Environment Federation’s field guide for water professionals on COVID-19
The Water Research Foundation’s update on coronavirus research