How Water Utilities Can Mitigate COVID-19 Challenges

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Wick Warden

Treatment Engineer

Water Professionals on the front lines in our water utilities may not be able to work from home, especially for those in maintenance and plant operations. Each member has technically specialized knowledge unique to their community systems.

What happens if an unplanned absence lasts several weeks or if multiple team members are out simultaneously? Temporarily losing a team member’s knowledge can pose serious challenges.

Here are some tips for minimizing the risk and mitigating the challenges related to COVID-19:

Leverage Technology – Segregate and Communicate

Divide operations and maintenance teams and bolster communications to minimize the risk and impact to the whole staff if one team member becomes sick. When it is possible, evaluate the potential to split operations and maintenance shifts to reduce the staff at the plant at any one time. Unless necessary, reduce in-person meetings and use video conferencing applications that allow for screen sharing to facilitate knowledge transfer at a distance. Utilities have also planned for teams to shelter in place at treatment facilities to ensure service while minimizing the risk of their staff’s exposure while off duty.

Work with your IT department to determine if virtual private networks (VPN) and multi-factor verification are in place to allow for access to critical systems remotely.

Invest in your Institutional Knowledge Base

Water utilities operate critical infrastructure that is expansive and complex. Operations and Maintenance Manuals, record drawings, GIS systems, Asset Management systems and Standard Operational Procedures are vital repositories of institutional knowledge but can become outdated. Verify these items are up to date and accessible. Host a video conference to share a high-level overview of the contents and the location with all team members. Sharing this information helps prepare the team for any emergency but especially with the current situation, and it will give the team confidence that if the information and processes are acted upon, the desired outcomes would be achieved. In a pinch, the most practical and expedient update will be helpful, but consider a long-term strategy for keeping these resources up to date and accessible.

Go ahead and fix it

When budgets are lean and there are other priorities, team members adapt. Your operations and maintenance staff have learned to deal with “it,” whatever “it” is. Develop a list of critical repair items, prioritize the list and begin working down the list. Repairing these critical items now, before the crisis intensifies, puts you on firm ground to operate and allows your plant teams to focus on other items.

Make AWIA 2018 Compliance Count

On Oct. 23, 2018, America’s Water Infrastructure Act (AWIA) was signed into law. AWIA Section 2013 requires community (drinking) water systems serving more than 3,300 people to develop or update risk assessments and emergency response plans (ERPs). The law specifies the components that the risk assessments and ERPs must address and establishes deadlines by which water systems must certify to EPA completion of the risk assessment and ERP. Collect the lessons learned in your community’s responses to emergencies and make compliance with AWIA 2018 Section 2013 count for your teams and community. Learn more here:

Management, operations and maintenance teams have an amazing ability to come together and make a plant function. Now, more than ever, we appreciate you all on working hard to ensure a safe supply of water is provided and that our wastewater treatment plants continue to operate and maintain compliance. Stay safe and reach out to any Freese and Nichols team member should you need any assistance in your preparations.

This article was also featured in the Water Environment Federation’s WaterBlog.

Coronavirus (COVID-19) Resources

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Wick Warden, PE, is a Water/Wastewater Treatment Project Manager in our Tulsa office.