Water utilities are successfully overcoming myriad challenges to continue water and wastewater service without disruption, according to a recent survey conducted by the American Water Works Association (AWWA).
The survey indicated the primary challenges facing utilities are procuring personal protective equipment (PPE) – particularly N95 face masks -- and either current or future revenue reductions resulting from the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. In a positive development, AWWA, in partnership with other water associations, worked with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to secure 3 million reusable cloth masks for the water sector, which may free up the high efficiency N95 masks for those essential jobs that require them. Distribution within each state is being coordinated by the respective Water/Wastewater Agency Response Network (WARN), state associations and primacy agencies.
More than half (56 percent) of the utilities surveyed indicate they are experiencing PPE supply chain issues due to the pandemic. Another 23 percent expect to experience these issues soon. One third of the utilities have exhausted their supplies of N95 masks, which mirrors shortages seen in other essential sectors. A third of utilities say they are completely out, and another 17 percent say they have a week's supply. Only 10 percent say they can restock as needed. There has also been an impact on sanitizing products to disinfect workspaces and hand sanitizers. While more than 80 percent of utilities report they have at least a two-week supply, only 30 percent say they can currently restock these products. Other PPE products, such as protective eye wear and nitrile/latex gloves are not affected as much, and many utilities have sufficient inventory on hand and are able to restock.
About 75 percent of utilities surveyed indicate they are either already experiencing or anticipating revenue reductions. More than 40 percent of these utilities predict the shortfall is at least slightly likely to impact their ability to maintain current levels of service.
Nearly all the U.S. utilities surveyed have plans in place to ensure essential operations for employees who can’t work from home and more than 80 percent have incorporated policies allowing for social distancing. Virtually all (98 percent) of the responses indicate an effort to maintain social distancing per CDC guidelines at work and are disinfecting and cleaning workspaces. A majority are promoting self-monitoring of symptoms and wearing a mask.
Conducted online from April 17-22, this is the third in a series of surveys of how AWWA member organizations are adapting to impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. The third survey of AWWA member organizations generated 598 responses, including from 541 different utilities and 52 non-utility responses (consultants, manufacturers, service providers and others). The responses offer close to a real-time assessment of how water sector organizations are currently managing impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
More than 95 percent of surveyed utilities have suspended water shut-offs and some are taking other actions to assist customers unable to pay their bills, such as suspending late payment fees (71 percent) and even returning suspended accounts to service (35 percent). These actions help protect public health but can also lead to a loss of revenue. Financial impacts are resulting in changes to maintenance/repair schedules and capital construction. About 40 percent of utilities have already reduced maintenance/repair schedules, 30 percent are delaying capital construction and 17 percent are suspending capital construction already in progress.
For the service providers who provide critical support to the water sector, almost 30 percent surveyed are already seeing revenue loss with another 50 percent expecting to soon. Many (68 percent) are reducing spending and another 26 percent are anticipating having to do so soon. Finally, 74 percent of service providers surveyed say they have already adjusted staffing protocols to adjust to the changing landscape.
AWWA is offering resources to assist utilities with dealing with the challenges that arise during the pandemic at awwa.org/coronavirus.