Coronavirus and Water

For most of us that means some level of social distancing.  Limiting interactions with others will help flatten the exposure curve.  For all of us, this step raises questions about maintaining food and other necessities – as well as what we would do if a loved one starts showing symptoms.

Which brings me to the question at hand – how is the Coronavirus impacting water utilities?  Treatment experts confirm that standard disinfection procedures will ensure that drinking water supplies do not harbor the virus and are safe.  There is concern about the potential for the virus in sewage, although most wastewater treatment plants also use chlorine disinfection, and the route to exposure is limited.

Our concern then is not about the virus in water supplies, and more on how to ensure the availability of critical operators of these systems and the chemicals, supplies and equipment that is necessary in their 24/7/365 work.

Handling emergencies and disasters with calm and excellence is in the DNA of water utilities.  Most have plans for how to manage and operate which govern at these moments, some of which are simply part of hard-won experience and others in written plans diligently followed when needed.

Except this moment is not like any other.  One of the best attributes for water utilities is how we come to the assistance of our brethren in a time of need.  This system works because disasters do not hit the entire country at the same time.  If a storm causes disruption in one area, utilities from outside that area step forward to help with back-up crews, supplies and equipment.  Almost every utility has been on both sides of this equation – sending or receiving help.

The challenge at this moment is that the hurricane of this virus is hitting the entire country, indeed the entire world, at virtually the same time.  How will utilities be able to come to the aid of their brethren in a world of quarantines and ubiquitous risk?  Where will a thinly staffed utility find back-up personnel support, back-up treatment supplies or other needed equipment when every utility will be worried about their own supplies and personnel?

This harsh reality emphasizes the importance of immediate and national implementation of a series of extraordinary measures.  We start with a proposed series of steps that can be taken on a national basis to support water utilities over the next weeks and months.  We follow with five steps utilities should adopt to improve their resilience to this crisis.  We hope this post triggers further discussion and exploration of the ideas we present.

Many utilities are already implementing some or most of these steps and more.  Larger utilities, simply due to their size, will have larger staffs to provide support, and larger inventories and financial resources.  The water world, though, is dominated by thousands of smaller water utilities that often rely on a handful of critical personnel and have limited financial resources or on-site inventory.

Restrictions of either supplies or personnel to these utilities could be devastating and hit suddenly and without warning.  The good news is that with additional thought and preparation we should be able to weather this storm.  The federal government can take the lead, working with the states, on the following steps:

  1. Document the critical chemical and other supplies that are needed in water treatment.
  2. Identify appropriate long-term supplies and focus on procuring and stockpiling these materials.  Personnel who do this work should gain priority for protective gear.
  3. Organize regional networks of expertise, which would enable properly protected experts to travel to areas that are facing a personnel shortage to provide temporary help.
  4. Encourage regional networks among smaller utilities to share resources and personnel.  Safety equipment should also be prioritized for use in these circumstances.
  5. Identify lower cost automation projects that can be implemented quickly that would enable utilities to operate remotely and/or with lower staffing levels.
  6. Provide emergency funding and procurement procedures to enable these steps, particularly for utilities in underserved areas.

To provide context for these policy suggestions, we offer the following five steps that a utility should adopt to improve their ability to maintain critical services in the face of this unprecedented crisis.

Step 1: Communication and Outreach

  • This is the place to start.  Communication means remaining informed of the latest credible information on the pandemic and its practical consequences to staff, customers and suppliers.  Rely on the World Health Organization (WHO), Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and state and local health authorities.
  • Implement an enhanced internal and external communications plan to keep everyone informed.
  • Identify back-up communication systems in the unlikely event that any existing systems fail.
  • Immediately expand virtual communication systems and remote options with staff.
  • Position utility leadership to be the face of communications on water issues to the media and customers.
  • Practice these messaging do’s during a crisis:
    • Express that health and safety are the top priority.
    • Be clear that the utility is following guidance from the WHO, CDC and state and local health authorities.
    • Be transparent – be clear about what you know and do not know.
    • Be positive and reassuring, and project calm and control.
    • Promise to provide updates when available.
    • Provide a method of contact for questions.

Step 2: Personnel and Customer Safety and Redundancy

  • Establish, test and implement systems that enable work from home and virtual meetings.
  • Send all non-essential employees to work from home.  If needed in the office, sequence work in shorter shifts with fewer employees on-site at any given time.
  • Adopt enhanced cleaning procedures for workspaces, vehicles, equipment with emphasis on essential workstations, equipment and operations.
  • Reduce or eliminate group meetings.  Conduct virtual meetings in every possible case.  For essential in-person meetings, practice social distancing and cleaning before and after meeting.
  • Reduce operation and maintenance crews to smallest number needed to accomplish work safely.
    • If possible, try to reduce shifts to a minimum and have key personnel, especially operators, in reserve.  For example, if a facility has 8 operators per shift, could it temporarily function with 5 until the crisis has eased?
    • Consider implementing reduced staffing programs commonly associated with off-shift and/or weekend work to the entire week.
    • Lab and non-essential maintenance should be reduced to a few times a week or less.
    • For smaller treatment facilities that are already run/overseen remotely on second and third shirts or weekends, expand this approach to several more days a week.
    • Probability of exposure to contagion will be reduced.
    • If personnel or their loved ones get sick, the utility has more personnel in reserve.
  • Consider limited virtual cross-training of personnel on critical functions.
    • Are there basic procedures or actions that can be handled by staff not usually assigned in those areas if needed?
    • Identify full range of staff that can be cross trained if needed in an emergency, including office personnel.
  • Eliminate in-person customer payments.  For those unable to pay in any other fashion, offer a grace period until restrictions are lifted.
  • Eliminate shut offs until restrictions are lifted.

Step 3: Identify, Inventory and Plan for Critical Supplies

  • The issue here is redundancy of supplies, with emphasis on critical parts, chemicals and power.
  • Identify chemicals needed in treatment.
    • Confirm existing inventory.
    • Contact supplier to determine capability of securing additional supplies.
    • Consider enhancing back-up supplies on site.
  • Identify key equipment needed in both emergency response to upsets (water main breaks, sewer back-ups, equipment failure) and daily operations.
    • Identify any materials in limited supply.
    • Contact suppliers to determine ability and estimated time for resupplying if needed.
    • Be prepared for a reduced availability of calling on neighboring utilities for supplies given their own needs.
  • Identify key power needs and back-up power systems.  For existing diesel generators and similar equipment, review on-site fuel needs and ability to secure additional supplies.

Step 4: Procurement and Emergency Funding

  • Implement or develop emergency procurement procedures to enable accelerated purchasing and adoption of needed equipment and practices.
  • Identify potential emergency funding needs – seek temporary lifting of debt caps or other funding limitations.
  • Access credit lines or other sources of short-term capital.
  • Identify and connect with contractors or suppliers that may be needed on an emergency basis. Create a protocol in advance to be able to call on these resources quickly.

Step 5: Automation, Remote Sensing and Low Maintenance Operations

  • Identify critical aspects within the system that need regular monitoring and inspection.
  • Determine whether remote sensing, remote alarms and monitoring can be implemented.
  • Enable remote sensing and alarms to be accessed either in the main control station or by remote management.
  • Examples:
    • Wire pump station and treatment plant annunciators remotely to operators’ laptops so they can monitor pump station and treatment plant alarms from home.
    • Install cameras in plant control rooms that show the levels and monitors of critical process units so that they can be clearly seen by an operator from his/her laptop at home.   This could create a virtual control room.
    • Seek to have some personnel on-site or on call for actual adjustments.  Limit or prohibit capacity to change operational aspects remotely to limit cyber risks.
  • Integrate these practices with staff reduction plans noted above.
    • If plant staffing is reduced from 8 per shift to 5 and/or if weekend operating model extended to weekdays – remote monitoring can complement and enable visibility to monitor actions and target available resources.
    • On-site operators would make their visual inspections of equipment, like belt filter presses, that need to be seen in person.
  • Operations Management.  Remote monitoring combined with changing operating parameters to reduce maintenance needs.
    • Example: have all settling tanks available for operation so that if one breaks down, you can easily put or leave another tank in service.
    • Example: run all belt filter presses at medium speed (less likely to result in breakdown) than running a few at maximum speed.

We suggest these steps are for the short and intermediate term.  Over the longer term, a far-reaching automation program to provide resiliency is likely a necessary step not just to achieve efficiencies (the usual reason), but to provide continuity of operations in face of such a crisis.

Delivering clean water is a fundamental public health priority for homes, hospitals, senior centers and everywhere else.  An international hurricane like the Coronavirus will present unique and extraordinary challenges to the systems we have relied on for decades to support each other during emergencies.

With proper planning, preparation and execution, we can overcome those challenges and keep clean water flowing no matter what comes.

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