COVID-19 Effects on Water Treatment

As the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus wreaks havoc on lives and economies around the world, the government and private industry professionals in charge of protecting freshwater used for drinking, cooking, cleaning and bathing are facing critical challenges to ensure the continued health and safety of U.S. citizens.

No Covid-19 Found in Public Water Supply

The good news is that COVID-19 almost certainly cannot be spread through the water system. Water systems across the country have been or are being tested for this version of coronavirus. None has been detected in all cases. 

Conventional water treatment plants routinely kill all manner of viral and/or bacterial agents using treatment methods that include filtration and disinfection. That means all current water purification methods are essentially effective covid water treatment methods.

The Weakest Link: People

But a more urgent challenge in keeping the water system safe involves the people who work in this profession every day. Absenteeism and the continuity of operation are major areas of concern. Another is the impact on field operations. Yet another focus is maintaining the supply chain and logistics which keep disinfecting chemicals, parts and equipment moving to plant locations where they are needed. 

Again, all of these tasks are handled by well-trained people. The more that are potentially sidelined by the covid infection, the more difficult it becomes to maintain normal service and protect the water supply.

EPA Issues Essential Worker Guideline

In late March, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler issued an order to designate all water and wastewater workers as essential employees. That means they must stay on the job as long as they are unaffected by the coronavirus. Wheeler sent a letter to all 50 governors to advise them of the essential worker designation. He also sent a similar letter to all manufacturers and suppliers who provide services and materials to water treatment plants.

The EPA has also expressed its full support to cities and states where key decisions are made for implementing protective measures. For example, most local governments are prohibiting the discontinuation of water service cut-offs precipitated by economic difficulties. Millions of people have lost jobs and may have difficulty in keeping current with their basic utility bills, including the water bill. For the duration of the covid water treatment effort, washing hands and other protective methods must continue unabated for the larger public good.

Locking Down Water Plant Workers

Gilad Cohen is the CEO of IDE Americas. This firm operates a number of water treatment plants in the U.S. and globally. He has directed that a certain number of water workers be locked down in their plants for 21 days. This will isolate them at their place of work and prevent them from being infected outside of work. These locked-down employees are called “mission-critical” workers and will work 12-hour shifts. They will sleep in rented RVs set up in parking lots. Food will be supplied to them by leaving at the gate of the plant.

Volunteers Step Up to Combat COVID-19

Another example of ensuring worker continuity comes from Carlsbad, California. Ten workers at the Claude Lewis Desalination Plant have volunteered to be quarantined inside the facility for the next three weeks. They perform vital tasks, including inspecting for leaks, adjusting gauges, operating switches, maintenance and more. These dedicated workers are willing to make the sacrifice to keep this significant source of drinking water for southern California residents safe and flowing. 

Other examples of water plant professionals that are considered essential are workers that maintain digital infrastructure systems. Those that supply technical support for SCADA systems are also critical. SCADA stands for supervisory control and data acquisition. Routine sampling and monitoring tasks must continue and require trained staff to get the job done.

Thus, while our public water systems are protected by the technology for purifying water that is already in place, the pandemic threatens the public cleat water system from an indirect tangent — by putting pressure on the essential human resources that work hard every day for all of us to make our water pure, safe and clean.