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Implications of Social Distancing Policies on Drinking Water Infrastructure: An Overview of the Challenges to and Responses of U.S. Utilities during the COVID-19 Pandemic

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Social distancing policies (SDPs) implemented throughout the United States in response to COVID-19 have led to spatial and temporal shifts in drinking water demand and, for water utilities, created sociotechnical challenges. During this unique period, many water utilities have been forced to operate outside of design conditions with reduced workforce and financial capacities. Few studies have examined how water utilities respond to a pandemic; such methods are even absent from many emergency response plans. Here, we documented how utilities have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. We conducted a qualitative analysis of 30 interviews with 53 practitioners spanning 28 U.S. water utilities. Our aim was to, first, understand the challenges experienced by utilities and changes to operations (e.g., demand and deficit accounts) and, second, to document utilities’ responses. Results showed that to maintain service continuity and implement SDPs, utilities had to overcome various challenges. These include supply chain issues, spatiotemporal changes in demand, and financial losses, and these challenges were largely dependent on the type of customers served (e.g., commercial or residential). Examples of utilities’ responses include proactively ordering extra supplies and postponing capital projects. Although utilities’ adaptations ensured the immediate provision of water services, their responses might have negative repercussions in the future (e.g., delayed projects contributing to aging infrastructure).
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Implications of Social Distancing Policies on Drinking Water
Infrastructure: An Overview of the Challenges to and Responses of
U.S. Utilities during the COVID-19 Pandemic
Lauryn A. Spearing, Nathalie Thelemaque, Jessica A. Kaminsky, Lynn E. Katz, Kerry A. Kinney,
Mary Jo Kirisits, Lina Sela, and Kasey M. Faust*
Cite This: https://dx.doi.org/10.1021/acsestwater.0c00229
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sıSupporting Information
ABSTRACT: Social distancing policies (SDPs) implemented throughout
the United States in response to COVID-19 have led to spatial and
temporal shifts in drinking water demand and, for water utilities, created
sociotechnical challenges. During this unique period, many water utilities
have been forced to operate outside of design conditions with reduced
workforce and nancial capacities. Few studies have examined how water
utilities respond to a pandemic; such methods are even absent from many
emergency response plans. Here, we documented how utilities have been
impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. We conducted a qualitative analysis
of 30 interviews with 53 practitioners spanning 28 U.S. water utilities. Our
aim was to, rst, understand the challenges experienced by utilities and
changes to operations (e.g., demand and decit accounts) and, second, to
document utilitiesresponses. Results showed that to maintain service
continuity and implement SDPs, utilities had to overcome various challenges. These include supply chain issues, spatiotemporal
changes in demand, and nancial losses, and these challenges were largely dependent on the type of customers served (e.g.,
commercial or residential). Examples of utilitiesresponses include proactively ordering extra supplies and postponing capital
projects. Although utilitiesadaptations ensured the immediate provision of water services, their responses might have negative
repercussions in the future (e.g., delayed projects contributing to aging infrastructure).
KEYWORDS: drinking water, pandemic planning, infrastructure management, population dynamics, social distancing policies
1. INTRODUCTION
The COVID-19 pandemic has drastically changed, at least
temporarily, the way society, businesses, and infrastructure
systems operate. In March 2020, local governments throughout
the United States enacted a number of social distancing
policies (SDPs), encouraging people to stay home and limit
gatherings. These SDPs impacted water utility operations, as
utilities had to ensure continuous services and the safety of
their sta, while in many cases operating beyond their budgets
and design conditions. The American Water Works Associa-
tion (AWWA) found, for example, that utilities faced obstacles
concerning workforce management, revenue loss, and supply
chain for personal protective equipment (PPE).
1
In general, utilities were challenged to quickly implement
SDPs in their operations, often without guidance from their
emergency response plans even though previous reports
identied pandemics as a potential hazard to water systems.
2,3
One such study
4
investigated utilitiespreparedness for
pandemics using a survey of 50 Ohio utilities. Their study
discussed potential issues (e.g., employee absenteeism and
supply chain issues) and provides a template for pandemic
plans. More recent work that focuses on COVID-19 has
started to ll the gap in the pandemic planning literature for
the water sector
59
as well as for other infrastructure systems
(e.g., wastewater
10,11
). For instance, Cotterill et al.
9
utilized a
survey deployed in the U.K. to understand the impact of
COVID-19 on the water sector. They found that a range of
challenges can arise (e.g., IT-related along with health and
well-being) and that communication is critical when
responding to a pandemic. In a recent commentary, Neal
5
discussed how COVID-19 has impacted the water sector and
systems dependent on water, such as food production and
industry. Neal described COVID-19 as a threat multiplier and
recommends improved governance approaches. Similarly,
Sowby
6
reviewed emergency preparedness policies by
Received: November 5, 2020
Revised: December 18, 2020
Accepted: December 21, 2020
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anecdotally discussing utilitiesexperiences during the COVID-
19 pandemic. Other work
7
has focused on technology in the
water sector, hypothesizing that the COVID-19 pandemic will
accelerate the ongoing water sector digital revolution.
12
Aside
from the focus on water sector management during COVID-
19, researchers have also started to investigate how social
distancing has impacted water demand.
13,14
A study based in
southern Italy discovered that people used water dierently
when SDPs were enacted (e.g., delayed morning peak and no
lunchtime peak) and that the absence of commuters led to
noticeable demand decreases in certain cities. Overall, there
was a lack of pandemic-focused literature for the water sector
before COVID-19, but in response, many researchers are now
beginning to study the implications of pandemics on water
infrastructure systems.
In addition to examining the pandemic-specic literature, we
turn to population dynamics to understand SDPs as they can
be conceptualized as a form of population change (i.e., the
spatial demands on a system change when businesses close and
some people work from home). Previous research has
investigated water infrastructure system management in
shrinking (i.e., cities that face population decline),
15
urbaniz-
ing,
16
gentrifying,
17
and hosting
18
cities (i.e., cities that receive
displaced populations). Researchers have recognized that water
infrastructure systems struggle to adapt to population
dynamics due to limited exibility with xed systems designed
to operate under specic conditions and government
regulations.
16
The process of urbanization, for instance, can
complicate existing infrastructure plans and create the need for
capital projects, which might be challenging to fund. Faust and
colleagues
15,19,20
studied extensively how shrinking cities
manage water infrastructure, nding that utilities struggle to
decommission water infrastructure. Faure and Faust
17
studied
water infrastructure operations in gentrifying areas, focusing on
altered sociodemographics and density. Existing work has
explored many types of population dynamics, but to the best of
our knowledge, researchers have yet to frame pandemic-
induced SDPs as population dynamics when studying water
infrastructure management. Notably, studies focused on
capturing how demand changes (i.e., humaninfrastructure
interactions) impact the performance of water systems enable
researchers to understand system vulnerabilities and leverage
points (i.e., how an action might impact system perform-
ance).
21
The existing literature on pandemic planning and population
dynamics for water utilities is limited. As such, we have little
knowledge of how water utilities adapt and respond to
pandemics. Although recent studies have begun to ll this gap,
scholars have recognized that researchers might be able to
identify large-scale challenges and clarify results from existing
COVID-19 research in the water sector by conducting
semistructured interviews.
9
Hence, we use semistructured
interviews to document the experience, during the COVID-19
pandemic, of U.S. drinking water utilities. Our aim is twofold:
(1) to understand the changes to system operations and
challenges faced by utilities and (2) to study their response to
challenges emerging during the pandemic. Our study is
enabled by an inductive qualitative analysis of interviews and
focus groups from 28 utilities. Our work on water utility
operations during a pandemic will provide further theoretical
evidence to underpin future research into the necessity of
incorporating diverse water use proles and consideration of
population dynamics for resilient operations.
By exploring the implications of SDPs on water utilities,
utilities can learn about more proactive approaches that will be
immediately relevant if there are additional waves in the
COVID-19 pandemic. A research area that has been of great
interest to both national and global organizations
2,22
is building
a set of best practices and increasing utility resilience to future
extreme events. The rst step in enhancing this research area is
to collect and analyze data to identify a range of approaches
employed. Notably, operational data and institutional experi-
ences often go unpreserved in utility records. In this study, we
capture and document these lessons learned, which would
otherwise erode with time and personnel changes. The results
of our study will provide valuable information to utilities as
they plan for future disasters or develop continuity plans. In
fact, during the initial weeks of COVID-19, a survey of U.S.
utilities found that only 55% of utilities had a business
continuity plan, while an additional 27% of utilities were in the
process of developing one.
23
2. MATERIALS AND METHODS
Serving as data for this study are 26 semistructured interviews
and four focus groups (with four or more interviewees) with
water utilities across the United States. Importantly, inter-
viewees considered the gathering of pandemic planning
information to be important and were willing to share their
insight and learn from one another. Although some utilities in
ourstudyprovidemultipleinfrastructureservices(e.g.,
wastewater), we tailored the interviews and qualitative analysis
around the provision of drinking water. This includes processes
involved in treating water for drinking (e.g., operations
facilities and testing), distributing water to users, maintaining
physical infrastructure, and managing this process (e.g., supply
chain for treatment chemicals or testing equipment, managing
workforce, and customer relations). We studied the roles of
multiple utility employees such as operators, maintenance eld
sta, lab stathat perform regulatory testing, customer service
representatives, and managers. The qualitative analysis
examined how these processes were disrupted by the
COVID-19 pandemic (reducing face-to-face contact with
customers, adjusting workow to ensure social distancing,
changed water demands, etc.).
2.1. Data Sources and Collection. Interviewees were
selected using both convenience and snowball sampling. We
rst utilized our professional network to contact practitioners
at utilities across the United States (i.e., convenience
sampling). At the end of each interview, we asked the
interviewee for contact recommendations (i.e., snowball
sampling). Interviews were conducted until theoretical
saturation of ideas was met, meaning no new information
emerged during multiple interviews.
26
Prior to data collection,
the interview questions were reviewed by the Institutional
Review Board at The University of Texas at Austin and The
University of Washington. Participants were invited to
participate through email, and interviews were conducted
using online video conferencing, recorded (with permission),
and transcribed. Interviews were approximately one hour in
duration. The interview process started on June 8, 2020 (3
months after federal social distancing recommendations were
enacted
25
) and ended on August 3, 2020. The data set
represents insight from 53 utility employees at 28 utilities
spanning 13 states. See Table 1 for more details about
interviewees. Size classications are based on the U.S.
Environmental Protection Agencys Community Water System
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Survey
27
with an additional category (>1 million customers).
Intervieweesexperience ranged from 2 to 30 years.
We asked questions focused on understanding how utilities
were impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. We began
interviews with broad questions about the pandemic to
provoke thoughtful responses and then followed initial
discussions with specic questions (e.g., about disinfectant
residuals and the supply chain). Example interview questions
are as follows: (1) In your experience, how has COVID-19
impacted your utility? (2) Do you think your customers are
using water dierently during shutdowns? (3) Did you have
any supply chain issues? (4) Did the utility activate an
emergency response plan?
2.2. Qualitative Analysis. All interviews were transcribed
and then coded in a qualitative coding research database. Each
excerpt was rst categorized as a challenge/change or a
response. We dened a challenge/change as obstacles faced by
utilities to provide water services (e.g., lack of sta) or a change
to the system (e.g., change in demand). A response was
dened as anything a utility did to respond to or counteract
challenges. Although the research questions provided a
framework for analysis, we took an inductive analysis approach;
excerpts were coded on the basis of emergent, general
categories (Table 2) as opposed to predened codes. These
parent codes show broad thematic ideas, while excerpts also
were coded by more specic ideas and are shown in the results
(i.e., child codes). Coding was completed by two researchers,
with excerpts reviewed by both researchers. In addition, the
coding was validated through an intercoder reliability check (κ
= 0.86), achieving a κvalue considered satisfactory for
qualitative research.
24,28
This κvalue was calculated on the
basis of 24 excerpts coded by both researchers.
2.3. Limitations. We used our data set to draw
generalizable recommendations, despite sampling only a subset
of U.S. utilities. Although this limits the implications that can
be made, we conducted interviews until no new information
emerged from subsequent interviews,
26
indicating that the
themes revealed in our study can be used to draw conclusions
and recommend practical management strategies. In addition,
we captured experiences from 28 utilities in varying geographic
regions of the United States (see Table 1). Notably, the
resulting frequencies do not necessarily indicate the intensity
or prevalence of an issue. For example, a frequency of 10
excerpts for one challenge compared to two excerpts for
another does not indicate that one issue was more challenging;
rather, this nding captures awareness. In turn, instead of
solely relying on frequency tables (Tables 3 and 4), we present
how utilities experienced certain challenges or responded in
certain ways through visualizations (Figures 1 and 2).
The COVID-19 pandemic was rapidly changing during the
data collection period. Each geographic region experienced
outbreaks at dierent times, and there were notable geographic
variations in SDPs, enforcement, and compliance. It is
important to note that this almost certainly impacts the
changes observed by utilities. For instance, respondents
discussions may vary on the basis of the severity of an
outbreak in their region at the interview time. We believe that
the relatively short data collection period (2 months) reduces
Table 1. Information about Respondents
state no. of
interviewees roles EPA size classication
26
(no. of
customers)
Alabama 1 Water Resources Management Director 10,001100,000
Arizona 1 Water Director 10,001100,000
Arizona 1 General Manager 10,001100,000
Arizona 1 Operations Manager 100,0011 million
Arizona 1 Deputy Director 100,0011 million
California 1 Operations and Maintenance Director 100,0011 million
California 1 Operations Manager >1 million
California 4
a
varying roles 100,0011 million
California 1 Assistant General Manager of Operations/Engineering 100,0011 million
California 6
a
varying roles >1 million
Colorado 2 Deputy Director of Public Works, Drinking Water Program Supervisor 100,0011 million
Colorado 2 Project Manager, Senior Lead Operator 10,001100,000
Connecticut 1 Supply Operations Manager 100,0011 million
Kentucky 2 Vice President of Communications and Marketing, Manager of Distribution Water
Quality 100,0011 million
Massachusetts 1 Assistant Superintendent 10,001100,000
Michigan 1 Water Quality Manager 100,0011 million
Michigan 1 Deputy Director of Water & Wastewater 100,0011 million
New Jersey 1 Superintendent 100,0011 million
Oregon 1 Water Quality Manager >1 million
Oregon 2 Director of Water Quality & Treatment, Human Resources Manager 100,0011 million
Texas 2 Assistant Director, Supervising Engineer >1 million
Texas 1 Water Treatment and Compliance Manager 10,001100,000
Texas 4
a
varying roles >1 million
Texas 1 Building Manager university campus
b
Utah 1 Water Quality & Treatment Administrator 100,0011 million
Washington 1 Senior Environmental Specialist 100,0011 million
Washington 1 Senior Water Quality Engineer >1 million
Washington 10
a
varying roles 100,0011 million
a
Focus group conducted online.
b
Interview with practitioners at a university campus.
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the temporal aspect of this limitation but do not feel our data
set was large enough to draw conclusions about how these
dierences may have inuenced our results. More granular
research is needed to better understand this and other
consequences of SDPs.
3. RESULTS AND DISCUSSION
Although each utility has unique characteristics, some common
challenges (Table 3 and Figure 1) and responses to such
challenges (Table 4 and Figure 2) emerged from the data.
Tables 3 and 4show the frequencies of each code and the
count of utilities that had excerpts coded to the theme. Figures
1and 2provide a visualization of what percent of utilities
experienced certain challenges or performed certain actions in
response. The gures also show what percent of utilities did
not experience or did not mention the respective challenges or
responses. Here we will discuss the larger thematic categories
as outlined in Table 2.
3.1. Planning and Management. More than half of the
coded excerpts were related to planning and management.
Overall, utilities felt that SDPs dramatically changed the way
utilities were managed. One interviewee said the stay-at-home
orders took [their] organization and ipped it on its head,
while another mentioned that although the mission was
unchangedto provide uninterrupted, reliable, sustainable
utility servicesthey had to do it under new circumstances.
As expected, these changes came with challenges, specically in
planning, workforce management, and supply chain.
3.1.1. Planning. Utilities conveyed that a lack of pandemic
planning hindered their ability to quickly respond; they had to
rst learn how to respond to [a] pandemic. Approximately
one-third (32%) of utilities activated their emergency response
plan, while other utilities (46%) created or improved existing
pandemic plans (see Figure 2 for information about the
utilities that did not perform these actions or did not mention
or know if the response was taken). Notably, only 39% of
utilities noted that pandemic planning was incorporated in
existing emergency response plans prior to COVID-19 (see
Figure 1 for information about the utilities that did not
experience this challenge or did not mention or know if they
did). Many respondents noted that the COVID-19 pandemic
allowed them to create improved or new pandemic plans and
that they would be more prepared for future pandemics.
3.1.2. Workforce Management. Workforce management
comprised 50% of challenges and 55% of responses coded
under the planning and management theme. One interviewee
said it was a delicate balance of [continuing] to maintain
operations and provide safe drinking water to people while
protecting our personnel, and another called it a labor-
management administrative nightmare. Utilities took various
actions to ensure the safety of their sta(e.g., social distancing
policies, shifts, and vehicle policies) and, as the potential risk
varied, generally tailored their workforce policies to employees
roles (see Table 4). For instance, the risk of contracting
COVID-19 when working will likely be lower for eld sta
compared to employees that work at a large treatment plant. At
many utilities, eld stacontinued to work with adjustments
such as using temporary facilities or taking their work vehicles
home so they did not have to go into the oce.
What was of utmost importance to utilities within the
treatment plants was the safety of their operators. One utility
observed that it would be traumatic to have just one of their
operators unable to work. In turn, utilities took proactive steps
Table 2. Coding Dictionary for Interview Excerpts
code denition example of a challenge/change excerpt example of an action excerpt
planning and
management
related to planning and management
(including personnel and supply
chain)
Stang: really, really, really challenging.”“We developed kind of an annex to (our emergency response plan), and we
kind of call it our COVID operations plan.
technical
system
related to the technical system (e.g.,
demand, operations, water quality,
and maintenance)
From a water quality perspective, we have had some challenge in having that turnover the way we
would like to see it.
Weve had to design a whole new chemical feed system.
nances related to nances of the utility (e.g.,
billing and revenue)
Its a big deal to me that my revenue is down 70%.”“Well, we actually did renance something; wedrenance some loans or
bonds.
community-
related
related with the community (e.g.,
engagement and complaints)
Thereve been people that are concerned that any change in the water, taste, smell, color, anything
like that, their rst inclination is that its infected somehow.
But even with that then, our communication with the public had changed,
really for the better though. It increased the amount of communication and
the methods that we used.
regulatory re-
quirements
and testing
related with adhering to regulatory
requirements or general testing
One of the ways that this has directly impacted us, is that this is my year for tri-annual lead and
copper sampling. But dealing with customers and getting into their homes and arranging sampling
is a lot more dicult in the pandemic.
In my distribution system, one of the things that we did was we moved all of
our routine monitoring sites to not be in commonly used public places.
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such as making treatment plants restricted access, putting
operators on shifts, and setting up secondary control stations.
Notably, the size of the utility and the design of the water
treatment plant impact the amount of contact operators have
with others. For instance, one utility that serves fewer than
100,000 people had limited workforce challenges at their
treatment plant because it was not necessary to stathe
treatment plant 24/7. The challenge of protecting operators
presents a signicant vulnerability in water systems as there are
often few people trained for each system. Despite recent
technological innovations, operators are still critical to the
water system due to their supervisory role.
12
With an aging
workforce and a limited pool of qualied talent, water utilities
were, even prior to the pandemic, struggling with a lack of
sta.
29
This was exacerbated during the pandemic as some sta
retired early, were unable to work without childcare, or
decided to not work due to preexisting conditions that put
them at increased risk if they were to contract COVID-19.
Table 3. Select Portion of a Frequency Table of Challenges and Changes Faced by Utilities during the COVID-19 Pandemic
(see the Supporting Information for the full table; relative frequency is the percent of all excerpts coded as challenges or
changes)
qualitative code
no. of
utilities
no. of responses
(relative
frequency)
excerpts about COVID-related challenges or
changes
28 410 (100.0%)
planning and management 28 205 (50.0%)
institutional collaboration (e.g., conferences
canceled, working with government/unions)
5 8 (2.0%)
internal communication (e.g., loss of adjacency,
between shift changes)
10 16 (3.9%)
planning 12 19 (4.6%)
adapting and planning to ensure continuity
of services
4 5 (1.2%)
lack of pandemic preparation (e.g., public
health knowledge, pandemic plans)
9 11 (2.7%)
managing a prolonged event vs a discrete
disaster
3 3 (0.7%)
supply chain 27 60 (14.6%)
difficulty procuring or worry about routine
supplies (e.g., chemicals, valves)
16 30 (7.3%)
difficulty procuring personal protective
equipment (PPE) or sanitation materials
20 30 (7.3%)
workforce-related 25 102 (24.9%)
lack of staff during pandemic (e.g., family
leave, retiring early)
7 12 (2.9%)
personnel management 21 58 (14.1%)
ensuring safety of operations staff 4 8 (2.0%)
providing emotional support 1 2 (0.5%)
implementing social distancing and
sanitation protocols
15 25 (6.1%)
increased workload for managers 6 8 (2.0%)
training new staff 3 3 (0.7%)
transitioning technology to work from
home (e.g., IT issues)
10 12 (2.9%)
adjusting workflow (e.g., delays, challenges
working from home)
3 3 (0.7%)
workforces perceptions and attitudes (e.g.,
morale, different views, resistance to
change)
11 29 (7.1%)
technical system 25 109 (26.6%)
demand and water use 24 91 (22.2%)
change in demand (total, patterns) based on
user type
20 69 (16.8%)
commercial 14 18 (4.4%)
decrease in demand 13 17 (4.1%)
slight increase in demand 1 1 (0.2%)
decrease in industrial demand 6 8 (2.0%)
decrease in outdoor entertainment (e.g.,
golf course, water park)
2 2 (0.5%)
residential 15 26 (6.3%)
change in residential demand curve
(e.g., peaks reduced, morning peak
delayed)
7 8 (2.0%)
qualitative code
no. of
utilities
no. of responses
(relative
frequency)
increased demand 12 18 (4.4%)
residential increase offset commercial
decrease
7 7 (1.7%)
decrease in demands at universities or
similar to holiday breaks
6 8 (2.0%)
overall system demand 13 22 (5.4%)
decrease in overall demand 10 15 (3.7%)
increase in overall demand 3 7 (1.7%)
continuing maintenance (e.g., delayed response,
with social distancing)
3 3 (0.7%)
decrease in pipe breaks 2 3 (0.7%)
water quality 6 12 (2.9%)
disinfectant residuals 4 6 (1.5%)
higher than normal residuals 1 1 (0.2%)
low residuals 3 5 (1.2%)
managing water quality 4 6 (1.5%)
finances 21 58 (14.1%)
billing (e.g., customer payments, rates, revenue) 20 54 (13.2%)
billing cycle altered due to challenges
reading meters
1 1 (0.2%)
policies about no shut-offs or rate increases
led to challenges
7 7 (1.7%)
increase in delinquencies or enrollment in
customer assistance programs
13 25 (6.1%)
revenue change 14 21 (5.1%)
decrease in revenue 12 19 (4.6%)
increase in revenue 2 2 (0.5%)
change in spending or financial capacity (e.g.,
negative financial impacts, delayed budget)
4 4 (1.0%)
community-related 14 25 (6.1%)
adapting outreach and communication strategies
(e.g., virtual issues, delays responding)
5 8 (2.0%)
customer calls or complaints 9 14 (3.4%)
decrease in customer calls (e.g., because no
shut-offs)
4 6 (1.5%)
increase in customer complaints and
concerns (e.g., aesthetics, worry about water
safety)
6 8 (2.0%)
change in public use of utilitieswatershed (e.g.,
increase, more trespassing)
3 3 (0.7%)
regulatory requirements and testing 9 13 (3.2%)
challenge adhering to state shutdown guidelines
that change regularly
3 3 (0.7%)
challenge to perform testing (e.g., because in
home, lack of staff, lab supply chain)
8 10 (2.4%)
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Managers mentioned that their jobs drastically changed as
they developed and implemented SDPs. One interviewee said
that the pandemic was another job packed on top of [their]
job. Another described adapting to the latest shelter-in-place
orders as an exhausting exercisesaying that a new one
comes out every week [and we have to interpret it], which is
not always easy. With limited pandemic planning in the water
sector, managers struggled to quickly adapt. Utilities noted
that, as they created responses to SDPs, they used best
practices from other organizations (e.g., Water Research
Foundation and American Water Works Association) and
existing examples from other utilities. This could be expected
based on research focused on knowledge-sharing connections
and time savings.
30
In addition, interviewees mentioned that
managing their workforce during a pandemic was outside of
their knowledge and training. For instance, one respondent
said, I didnt have training in providing psychological support
to 150 people. All of a sudden Im being called to do that, to
motivate them, to provide basically emotional support for them
to stay motivated, not to lose focus, and not to just take care of
themselves but take care of their family.
In addition, managing stabecame more challenging
because there was a lack of adjacencyno hallway
conversations or face-to-face meetings. In turn, utilities used
technology for communication and implemented new internal
communication strategies (e.g., online COVID-19 resources
and frequent check-ins with employees for emotional support).
3.1.3. Supply Chain. Utilities faced an array of supply chain
issues, from routine supplies (e.g., disinfectant chemicals and
testing materials) to personal protective equipment (PPE). Of
the utilities surveyed, 71% experienced issues procuring the
needed PPE and sanitation materials to operate safely (see
Figure 1 for information about the utilities that did not
experience this challenge or did not mention or know if they
did). Interestingly, many utilities responded creatively to this
challenge. For instance, utilities made certain resources in
house (e.g., hand sanitizer) and one utility even changed their
sampling techniques due to a shortage of alcohol. To clean the
Table 4. Select Portion of a Frequency Table of UtilitiesResponse to the COVID-19 Pandemic (see the Supporting
Information for the full table; relative frequency is the percent out of all response excerpts)
qualitative code
no. of
utilities
no. of responses
(relative
frequency)
excerpts about utilitiesresponse to COVID-19 28 470 (100.0%)
planning and management 28 331 (70.4%)
change in capital projects (e.g., delayed,
increased during shutdown)
14 17 (3.6%)
increase in institutional collaboration (e.g.,
federal agencies, other utilities)
13 19 (4.0%)
new internal communication plans (e.g.,
regular updates, technology, focus on morale)
12 25 (5.3%)
planning 23 47 (10.0%)
activated/used emergency response plan or
created/improved a pandemic plan
20 28 (6.0%)
other pandemic planning (e.g., front-end
planning, for a possible recession)
14 19 (4.0%)
supply chain 22 42 (8.9%)
became a priority customer to supplier or
found backup supplier
4 4 (0.9%)
innovative actions to meet supply chain
issues (e.g., in-house manufacturing)
6 8 (1.7%)
ordered extra materials 10 13 (2.8%)
reached out to suppliers to ensure
materials
13 14 (3.0%)
used stocked masks 3 3 (0.6%)
workforce-related 28 181 (38.5%)
general shift changes or furloughs for all
staff
7 8 (1.7%)
most or all customer service staff work
from home
4 5 (1.1%)
change in field staffs workflow (e.g., shifts,
temporary facilities, no time in the office)
17 34 (7.2%)
change in lab staffs workflow (e.g.,
increased hours, contactless sample
deliveries)
5 6 (1.3%)
change in operation staffs workflow (e.g.,
restricted access to plants, shifts)
22 35 (7.4%)
change in professional/office staffs
workflow (e.g., work from home)
21 39 (8.3%)
new workplace policies (e.g., social
distancing, cleaning, leave policies, vehicle
rules)
22 54 (11.5%)
qualitative code
no. of
utilities
no. of responses
(relative
frequency)
technical system 15 32 (6.8%)
noncritical maintenance deferred, slowed, or
stopped at one point
9 14 (3.0%)
contracted cleaning services for bathrooms
around water sources
1 1 (0.2%)
changed physical infrastructure operations
(e.g., shut down plant, adjusted tanks)
1 3 (0.6%)
change in water quality management (e.g.,
chemical dosing or flushing)
8 15 (3.2%)
finances 21 46 (9.8%)
billing (e.g., customer payments, rates,
revenue)
16 23 (4.9%)
expansion of customer assistance programs
(e.g., payment plans, small businesses)
13 18 (3.8%)
rate changes enacted or postponed (e.g.,
increase rates, postponed increase)
4 5 (1.1%)
financing or funding 10 11 (2.3%)
adjusted loans or bonds (e.g., delayed
applying, refinanced)
3 3 (0.6%)
plan to apply for federal funds or tracked
spending in case
7 8 (1.7%)
spending or financial capacity 6 12 (2.6%)
hiring freeze or reduction in hiring 4 5 (1.1%)
increase in expenditures (due to social
distancing policies or expected budget cut)
3 3 (0.6%)
operations and maintenance spending
reductions
2 4 (0.9%)
community-related 20 48 (10.2%)
change in customer service operations (e.g.,
reduced hours, in-person service suspended)
7 9 (1.9%)
adapted outreach strategies (e.g., building
flushing protocols, safety information, virtual)
19 38 (8.1%)
regulatory requirements and testing 7 12 (2.6%)
changed location of monitoring sites or added
additional sites (e.g., public spaces)
6 9 (1.9%)
planned for a reduction in or reduced
nonregulatory testing
2 3 (0.6%)
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taps they were testing, they relied on aming the spigot, a
method commonly used in the 1990s.
Even for routine supplies, there were supply chain issues.
Utilities were concerned about shortages of multiple chemicals
and resources (e.g., chlorine, carbon dioxide, oxygen, sodium
hypochlorite, and alum). Despite the concern, most utilities
were able to ensure access to these resources by reaching out
to suppliers, ordering early, or becoming a priority customer
(by paying a premium or working with the government).
Notably, utilities did experience delays receiving materials,
especially from abroad. One interviewee, for instance, said,
We did [order] some specialty valves from Italy. Suce to say,
we havent got them in yet.Overall, utilities were able to cope
with these supply chain challenges, but in the event of future
disasters, these vulnerabilities could be reduced by improved
planning. For instance, utilities might proactively discuss
becoming a priority customer with their suppliers.
3.1.4. Capital Projects. Lastly, it is important to note that
utilities had to change their plans for capital projects.
Interestingly, one utility was able to accelerate a capital project
at a water treatment plant because it was shut down due to
decreased system demand. Most other utilities experienced the
opposite12 utilities had to delay or scale back projects. This
was due to nancial constraints for ve utilities, organizational
workforce SDPs for three utilities, supply chain delays for one
utility, and administrative delays due to increased workload for
another (and two utilities did not explicitly describe why).
Respondents pointed out that these changes to capital projects
could create future issues because there is a critical need to
update aging infrastructure and many projects were already
overdue. One respondent said that a capital project delay at the
treatment plant would lead to future water quality issues and
that they could not keep slapping Band-Aids on something. At
a certain point, its going to fail, and who knows when it
[will].Results focused on management and planning show
that COVID-19 exacerbated existing, widespread water
infrastructure issues such as aging infrastructure and a shortage
of qualied workers. It is worth noting that the pandemic
might accelerate the impacts of these challenges (e.g., earlier
retirements than expected and delaying planned capital
projects).
3.2. Technical System. 3.2.1. Demand, Water Use, and
Pipe Breaks. At many utilities, SDPs altered the spatial
distribution of demand, demand patterns, and overall system
demand. In fact, all but four utilities mentioned some change
or challenge associated with water use (see demand and water
use in Table 3). In terms of demand by customer class, 43% of
utilities mentioned an increase in residential demand, 46%
mentioned a decrease in commercial demand, and 21%
mentioned a decrease in industrial demand (see Figure 1 for
information about the utilities that did not experience these
changes or did not mention or know if they did). Interestingly,
Figure 1. Challenges and changes experienced by responding utilities (not inclusive of all codes; see the Supporting Information for the full
frequency table).
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some utilities reported that there were no changes to demand
for industrial customers because operations continued at
critical services (e.g., transportation and energy). For the total
demand change (see overall demand change in Figure 1 for a
detailed breakdown of utilitiesresponses to this question),
most utilities saw a decrease (36%) or no change in demand
(32%) while 11% saw an increase in demand. The magnitude
of demand changes varied by utility, with one utility
experiencing 70% less demand than normal. Notably, the
system demand was related to utilitiescustomer composition;
largely residential utilities tended to see an increase in demand,
while utilities that served large commercial areas or industrial
customers saw a decrease in demand. Many utilities that saw
no change in overall demand attributed it to the fact that the
increase in residential demand oset decreases in commercial
demand (i.e., a shift between rate classes).
Practically, pandemic planning should take into account the
composition of a utilitys customers to predict potential
demand changes. When responding to future pandemics,
utilities should look back on experiences during the COVID-19
pandemic. Nevertheless, it is important for managers to realize
that future changes in a utilitys customer base would also
change demands during a pandemic. In turn, population
predictions (i.e., expected demand change) from planning
procedures should be incorporated into pandemic plans.
In addition to system demand changes, some utilities (25%)
mentioned a change in their demand curves for residential
customers (i.e., people were using water dierently during the
pandemic). Note that the interview question was asked as
Were your customers using water dierently?, so the other
75% of utilities either did not mention changes in residential
demand curves, did not know, or said there were no changes.
Three utilities mentioned that the morning peak was delayed,
likely because people working from home were no longer
commuting. One interviewee observed a noticeable change in
demand curves, saying everything looks like a weekend.
These temporal demand changes likely increased the risk of
operational issues, but most utilities did not experience notable
problems. For instance, 32% of utilities noted that there were
no pressure issues; 46% said that there was not an increase in
the number of system failures (e.g., pipe breaks), and 25% did
not notice changes in tank turnover (see Figure 1 for
information about the utilities that did not experience these
challenges or did not mention or know if they did).
Conversely, one utility mentioned that their main break rate
went down dramatically, right as the shelter orders were taking
eect, and [they] didnt know why. The interviewee presented
two theories as to why this reduction in the number of breaks
occurred: (1) decreased trac (i.e., less road vibration) and
(2) fewer transient pressure spikes in the system due to
industrial customers shutting down. This utility noted that
transient pressure spikes were the lowest when SDPs were the
most stringent. This experience reveals that pandemic-induced
demand changes might have unexpected positive consequences
on the water systems operations (i.e., the system behaves
dierently than expected).
3.2.2. Water Quality and Maintenance. The water age in
the distribution system is inherently connected to changes in
demand, leading to possible water quality challenges when
demand declines. Notably, 64% of utilities in our analysis did
not see a change in disinfectant residuals throughout the
distribution system (see Figure 1 for information about the
Figure 2. Utilitiesresponse to the COVID-19 pandemic (not inclusive of all codes; see the Supporting Information for the full frequency table).
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utilities that did experience a change in residuals or did not
mention or know if they did). Despite demand changes, most
utilities did not observe negative water quality consequences
and were able to continue to provide water quality at
prepandemic levels, revealing a sign of resilience within water
systems. Of the utilities that did see changes to disinfectant
residuals, only three (one a university campus) mentioned
lower-than-usual residuals. Two of the three interviewees that
noted low residuals conducted sampling prior to ushing in
buildings, a fact that reinforces the importance of ushing
premise plumbing during pandemics. Most utilities that
noticed low residuals increased system ushing in problematic
areas, while only one utility noted that they preemptively
increased ushing due to demand changes (e.g., in commercial
areas that saw a decrease in water demand). On the contrary,
18% of utilities noted that they postponed or stopped ushing
due to stang constraints (see Figure 2 for information about
the utilities that did not change protocols or did not mention
or know if the response was taken). COVID-related workforce
challenges (i.e., limited sta) directly impacted utilitiesability
to perform system ushing as they had to prioritize critical
work. Stang shortages also caused utilities to adjust their
maintenance strategies. Nearly one-third (32%) of utilities
deferred noncritical maintenance such as replacing meters at
customershomes, preventative maintenance, or xing small
leaks, while all other utilities were unsure or did not mention
deferring maintenance. Similar to the future implications of
delaying capital projects, delayed maintenance could cause
future infrastructure issues.
3.3. Finances. The COVID-19 pandemic changed utilities
nancial capacities and spending. Forty-three percent of
utilities interviewed experienced revenue decreases. Of these,
six experienced a decrease in overall demand and six said that
demand had not noticeably changed. Many state and local
governments implemented regulations ensuring access to water
services despite usersability to pay (e.g., no water shutos
during the pandemic and loan forgiveness), contributing to
revenue decreases. Of utilities in our sample, 46% (13 utilities)
mentioned an increase in late payments or delinquent accounts
and seven of these explicitly mentioned a revenue decrease
(see Figure 1 for a detailed breakdown of information about
delinquent accounts). In turn, we can infer that both late
payments and demand decreases contributed to revenue loss.
The change in revenue varied among utilities, with some
utilities seeing dramatic decreases. For instance, one
interviewee noted that their utilitys revenue was down 70%
and that, despite cost reductions, it was a major concern due to
xed costs. Another interviewee noted that their revenue
numbers were horrible. This unexpected revenue decrease
led to management and operational challenges. For instance,
many of the delays in capital projects (see section 3.1.4) and
the reduction in maintenance (see section 3.2.2) were due to
this decrease in nancial capacity. Additionally, three utilities
mentioned that they were unable to or discouraged from
increasing water rates as planned, leading to long-term
challenges after the pandemic. As one interviewee stated, A
couple of big challenges that were facing is that we are in the
process of developing our budget for the next biennium. And
with that in mind, and pressure from board and council to look
into zero rate adjustments ... we still feel the inationary costs,
too. So thats something to consider if we do have zero rate
adjustments, it might take us, say six yearsthats what were
modelingto catch back up. And so in the long run, its
probably not to the benet of the utility, or our customers.
In response to COVID-19, utilities accrued new expenses
associated with SDPs. For example, one utility rented extra
vehicles to maintain personnel safety and another lost money
while sequestering employees. Many utilities accrued expenses
when they expanded their customer assistance programs due to
the pandemic (e.g., expanding the threshold to be eligible for
programs). One utility even created an assistance program for
small businesses. In summary, many utilities were experiencing
decreased revenue and increased operational expenses due to
the pandemic. Although 25% of utilities reported that they
planned to apply for federal funding, respondents generally did
not know of a clear opportunity for funding to cope with
pandemic-induced nancial challenges, revealing a gap in state
and federal legislation (77% of utilities did not know about or
mention federal funding).
3.4. Community-Related. The pandemic also altered the
way in which utilities communicate and interact with residents.
For instance, many utilities closed in-person customer service
or changed hours of operation. One utility was able to provide
drive-through customer service for customers to pay their bills.
SDPs came with community-related challenges such as
increased response time and communication challenges.
Two-thirds of utilities adapted their outreach strategies, such
as creating outreach materials for water safety and ushing
protocols. In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic forced water
utilities to rely on technology for public communication and
outreach (e.g., virtual meetings and increased use of social
media). One utility said that these technological strategies
actually improved their communication with the public: Our
communication with the public had changed, really for the
better though. It increased the amount of communication and
the methods that we used. We used to just put up signs, metal
signs, in the neighborhoods, and have a little blurb on our
website, but we started doing almost a reverse 911 type callout
to customers. And a lot more social media presence with
regard to all that, just so they know whats going on and why
we are doing it, so theyre not concerned.
After the COVID-19 pandemic, utilities expressed that they
would likely continue new outreach strategies to improve their
customersexperiences. It is important to note that customer
service and communication shifting online led to possible
equity issues for customers without access to the Internet. For
instance, customers might face barriers to pay their bill or fail
to receive communications from the utility when the main
medium is online (e.g., email and social media). If utilities
decide to make this technological shift permanent, they need
to come up with provisions to ensure equity and accessibility
of information.
Despite communication eorts, ve utilities (18%) did see
an increase in the number of customer complaints or calls (see
Figure 1 for a breakdown of utilitieschanges in customer
calls). These calls were for various reasons (e.g., aesthetic
complaints and questions about water safety). Three of these
utilities speculated that the increase in the number of
complaints was due to people being at home more and, in
turn, being more sensitive to water aesthetics or concerned
about their tap water. On the contrary, four utilities reported a
decrease in the number of customer calls, likely due to the
policy of no water shutos (i.e., customers were less concerned
about their bills).
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3.5. Regulatory Requirements and Testing. Water
utilities must adhere to water quality standards that are in place
to ensure public safety. Although the minimum standards are
specied by the federal Primary Drinking Water Regulations,
31
states may set and enforce more stringent standards. To show
compliance, water utilities must perform regular water quality
testing at the treatment plant and in the distribution system.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, it became more of a
challenge to perform these required tests (e.g., for disinfectants
and disinfection byproducts, lead and copper, and coliforms).
Specically, 29% of utilities mentioned that they struggled to
perform testing due to issues such as lack of sta, supply chain
challenges, and inability to sample at customershomes (see
Figure 1 for information about the utilities that did not
experience this challenge or did not mention or know if they
did). In response to this challenge, utilities changed the
location of sample sites or added backup sites in case of
complications. One utility continued to sample in customers
homes but, to maintain social distancing, allowed the residents
to collect the samples. Notably, two utilities reduced
nonregulatory testing, such as water quality monitoring in
reservoirs or groundwater sources.
4. STUDY IMPLICATIONS
This section outlines the implications for policy (i.e.,
suggestions to improve water utilitiesresilience to future
pandemics) and practice (i.e., utility planning recommenda-
tions). Similar to ndings about natural disasters,
32
we
discovered that the COVID-19 pandemic amplied existing
challenges. When interviewees discussed challenges faced
during the pandemic, they often pointed to the fact that
these issues existed before the pandemic. For instance, one
interviewee said, I really think its just the concerns that we
[utility] are already dealing with are sort of magnied by the
coronavirus.Some of these challenges were utility-specic,
while other challenges were consistent between utilities,
emerging as prevalent, systematic water infrastructure issues
in the United States. For instance, aging infrastructure and a
lack of qualied stawere widely known challenges before the
pandemic.
29,33
Also, operators were identied as points of
vulnerability as respondents mentioned that operational issues
would arise with even one operator being unable to work.
These challenges were amplied during the COVID-19
pandemic, and the repercussions of not addressing these
challenges could also be intensied or occur earlier. For
instance, delaying capital projects during the pandemic will
only exacerbate the issue of aging infrastructure. Delays
compounded with nancial issues at utilities (e.g., revenue
decrease and delayed rate increases) will make it challenging
for utilities to remain on the same capital project schedule. In
turn, the water system as a whole will be less resilient to future
disasters. In general, this nding further supports the urgent
need for federal and state policy to address gaps in
infrastructure funding. With regard to consequences from
this pandemic, it would be benecial to provide funding for
operational expenses and revenue decits that occurred. This
would enable utilities to continue funding capital projects and
infrastructure upgrades as the COVID-19 pandemic continues
and for future pandemics. In addition, we believe this funding
could be used to provide more equitable water sector services
by ensuring that needed capital projects are carried out in
underserved areas (we recommend including equity metrics in
project decision making as discussed by Jones and
Armanios
34
). Such funding could also enable utilities to extend
aordability programs during the pandemic-induced economic
crisis.
From a planning perspective, our results indicate that there
is a widespread need to integrate pandemic planning into the
existing long-term planning literature. From these short-term
demand changes occurring during the COVID-19 pandemic,
we can learn how to better manage long-term population
dynamics due to population decline (e.g., revenue decrease and
underutilized infrastructure
15,19,20
) or gentrication (e.g., the
demand patterns change due to new sociodemographics). In
turn, the results show that pandemic planning should be
integrated into existing population planning at water utilities.
In addition, future studies should focus on incorporating
pandemic planning into disaster-specic research to capture
multiple hazards.
5. CONCLUSIONS
Social distancing policies enacted due to the COVID-19
pandemic led to a sudden spatial and temporal shift in drinking
water demand. The utilities we interviewed were able to meet
this immense challenge and protect water quality and
operations. Still, despite this resounding success and although
utilities plan regularly for more typical population changes,
most had no advance plans that would have better enabled
them to respond to this scale of modication in operations. In
addition, during the utilitiesresponse, they were tasked with
implementing SDPs within their workforce and were impacted
by other repercussions of the pandemic (e.g., supply chain and
nancial concerns). In the study presented here, we identied
how utilities were challenged during SDPs and responded to
ensure the continuous provision of drinking water. We
performed 30 semistructured interviews and focus groups
with more than 50 utility employees. The data set included
input from 28 utilities and was qualitatively coded on the basis
of emergent themes. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, there
was little research focused on water utilitiesoperation during
pandemics. Our study contributes to this gap in the literature
and provides practical planning recommendations to utilities.
Findings also highlight the need for funding and research to
ensure resilient water infrastructure systems that are capable of
responding to unexpected stresses, such as pandemics, without
sacricing sustainability and public health.
ASSOCIATED CONTENT
*
sıSupporting Information
The Supporting Information is available free of charge at
https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acsestwater.0c00229.
Full frequency tables of challenges faced by utilities and
utilitiesresponses to the COVID-19 pandemic, which
are extended versions of Tables 3 and 4(PDF)
AUTHOR INFORMATION
Corresponding Author
Kasey M. Faust Civil, Architectural and Environmental
Engineering, The University of Texas at Austin, Austin, Texas
78751, United States; orcid.org/0000-0001-7986-4757;
Email: faustk@utexas.edu
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Authors
Lauryn A. Spearing Civil, Architectural and Environmental
Engineering, The University of Texas at Austin, Austin, Texas
78751, United States
Nathalie Thelemaque Civil and Environmental Engineering,
The University of Washington, Seattle, Washington 98195,
United States
Jessica A. Kaminsky Civil and Environmental Engineering,
The University of Washington, Seattle, Washington 98195,
United States; orcid.org/0000-0002-1340-7913
Lynn E. Katz Civil, Architectural and Environmental
Engineering, The University of Texas at Austin, Austin, Texas
78751, United States
Kerry A. Kinney Civil, Architectural and Environmental
Engineering, The University of Texas at Austin, Austin, Texas
78751, United States
Mary Jo Kirisits Civil, Architectural and Environmental
Engineering, The University of Texas at Austin, Austin, Texas
78751, United States
Lina Sela Civil, Architectural and Environmental
Engineering, The University of Texas at Austin, Austin, Texas
78751, United States; orcid.org/0000-0002-5834-8451
Complete contact information is available at:
https://pubs.acs.org/10.1021/acsestwater.0c00229
Author Contributions
Conceptualization and design: L.A.S., J.A.K., and K.F. Data
collection: J.A.K., K.F., and L.A.S. Data coding and analysis:
L.A.S. and N.T. Coding validation: L.A.S., N.T., J.A.K., and
K.F. Writing of the original draft: L.A.S. Review and editing: all
authors. Supervision: K.F.
Notes
The authors declare no competing nancial interest.
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
This material is based upon work supported by the National
Science Foundation under Grant 2032434/2032429 and the
National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship
Program under Grant DGE-1610403.
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... Consequently, the habits of people have been altered, triggering variations in the water consumption patterns of cities. As water sector workers worldwide have reported [1][2][3], these sudden variations have impacted the operation and finances of water utilities. Hence, understanding how water demand changed and how the systems responded is crucial to prepare for any coming unexpected event and enhance emergency contingency plans. ...
... These water consumption variations have affected the operations and financial performance of water utilities. Numerous utilities have had to work in non-design conditions and with decreased workforce and financial capabilities [2]. Water supply systems are designed according to an estimation of the future water demand according to historical consumption patterns. ...
... Based on the latter, long-term planning is essential for adapting water systems, especially as many cities are facing or expecting to handle water stress due to population growth, gentrification, and climate change. The pandemic experience gives an insight into upcoming water demand variations and revenue modification due to these phenomena [2]. The analysis of actual water usage changes demonstrates its capability to provide valuable information for water agencies, managers, and policymakers [15]. ...
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Several studies suggest that social distancing measures due to the COVID-19 pandemic have affected the water sector, specifically regarding its demand and supply. Given the importance of hygiene practices, this effect is heightened by the role that potable water availability has in tackling the spread of the virus. This study aimed to assess the impact of the pandemic on the water consumption patterns and location in four Colombian cities known for their important commercial, industrial, academic, and touristic features. Results exhibit diverse diminishing water consumption trends alongside COVID-19 because of different attributes of the cities (e.g., size, environmental, socioeconomic, and sociocultural characteristics). For instance, the touristic case study has been the most affected because of travel restrictions, with an average commercial demand drop of 32%. In contrast, industrial case studies have had a rapid recovery in water demand, with average industrial drops of 11–14% compared to 20–25% in non-industrial cities. These water demand changes do not affect only the operation of water utilities, but also their finances. Economic losses were estimated at 3.7%, 2.4%, and 6.4% of the expected incomes for the first 14 months of the pandemic for the case studies in this paper. Under a changing environment, understanding these changes and challenges is fundamental for ensuring that water systems are resilient in any unexpected situation.
... The companies' performance from the water professionals' perspective was scored, via a structured questionnaire, considering two scenarios (before and during the pandemic). Recently, similar studies have been developed to assess the water sector responses and the impacts on projects, practices and workers (Antwi et al., 2021;Capodeferro and Smiderle, 2020;Goldin et al., 2022;Lawson et al., 2020;Renukappa et al., 2021;Spearing et al., 2021). To the best of our knowledge, there are no prior studies measuring the water sector organisational resilience in Brazil. ...
... The COVID-19 pandemic has forced organisations to adapt their workplace practices and operations (Renukappa et al., 2021;Spearing et al., 2021). New ways of working were developed to protect safety and health at work, including social distancing, remote working, handwashing, the use of face masks and alcohol-based products. ...
... Staff shortages are also expected during the pandemic, as a consequence of reduced work teams, excused absences, and early retirements. These shortages were observed in studies conducted in other countries (Cotterill et al., 2020;Spearing et al., 2021). As operators play a critical role in Brazilian WSS utilities operations, lack of staff may affect maintenance strategies and system performance. ...
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The COVID-19 pandemic required a wide range of adaptations to the way that water sector operated globally. This paper looks into the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Brazilian water sector and evaluates the water sector's organisational resilience from the lens of water professionals. This study uses British Standard (BS 65000:2014)'s Resilience Maturity Scale method to evaluate organisational resilience in water sector under two defined scenarios of before and during the pandemic. For this purpose, the self-assessment framework developed by Southern Water in the United Kingdom (based on BS 65000:2014), comprising of the core resilience elements of Direction, Awareness, Alignment, Learning, Strengthening, and Assurance, are used for evaluations. A qualitative-quantitative surveying method is used for data collection. A total of 14 responses to the whole questionnaire were received from May 2021 to August 2021, each representing one water company in Brazil (four local companies and ten state-owned ones). The analyses identified COVID-19 as a threat multiplier particularly to already existing financial challenges due to the pre-existing threats in water sector. Bad debt and the COVID-19 emergency measures are recognised as the main challenges by 21 % and 14 % of the survey respondents. The state-owned and local companies scored an almost similar maturity level 3, 35 % and 34 % respectively, while the local companies scored much lower at maturity level 4 i.e., 26 % as opposed to 47 % in state-owned sector. This indicates that COVID-19 has a greater impact on local companies and the needs to increase preparedness. This study replicates an international experience to raise awareness on water sector's resiliency in Brazil and how it can be improved to withstand future external shocks. It sheds light on how and what existing challenges can be exacerbated facing a global shock and proposes opportunities for improvement of resilience maturity in water sector in Brazil.
... Many sectors faced restrictions or went into lockdowns, yet the urban water sector still had to provide water and sanitation services. Aside from dealing with operational restrictions, such as operating with a reduced workforce and difficulty in procuring supplies, utilities also had to deal with changes in water demand patterns, and, in some cases, impacts on finances (Cotterill et al. 2020;Spearing et al. 2021). ...
... Due to the larger share of domestic water for most utilities, total water sales, and hence revenues, increased a little. However, as Spearing et al. (2021) discuss for utilities in the United States, the temporary decrease in revenues may have led to postponement of investments, and planned tariff increases were postponed for some utilities, causing a longer-term impact. Hence, for individual cases there may be longer-term impacts on utilities' finances. ...
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The COVID-19 pandemic had significant impact on water utilities, which had to continue providing clean water under safe-distancing measures. Water use patterns were affected, shifting peak demand and changing volumes, though changes varied from place to place. This study analyses the effects of the safe-distancing measures on water use patterns in different countries and cities with the aim of drawing general conclusions on causes and impacts of changes in water use patterns, as well as providing some insights on the impacts on finances of utilities and potential long-term implications. The analysis is based on information collected by the members of the IWA Specialist Group on Statistics and Economics for Belgium, Cyprus, Germany, Japan, Switzerland, Portugal, Romania, the Netherlands and Singapore. Temporal, spatial/sectoral and volume changes can be distinguished. The main temporal change in domestic water use was a delay in the morning peak, while commercial water use patterns changed significantly. In general, the volume of domestic water use increased between about 3% and 8%, while non-domestic water use decreased between about 2% and 11% over 2020. Indirect evidence suggests shifts have taken place between sectors and spatially. The impact on finances of utilities has likely been only short-term. HIGHLIGHTS We give an overview of impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on water demand.; We look at water demand in different places globally.; We analyse new data from nine countries supplemented with data from the literature.; While the COVID-19 pandemic had different impacts on water use in different places, there are also some common trends.;
... In addition, public sectors suffered a lot from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, forcing them to adopt remote work systems and remote control of networks and infrastructures, especially during lockdown periods that imposed restrictions on mobility [2][3][4]. Among all public sectors, social distancing and mobility restrictions impacted the drinking water sector with regard to infrastructures [5], water demand and urban water circle [6], causing a different temporal distribution of municipal water consumption [7]. ...
... Before Covid-19, water supply systems faced already numerous challenges such as water losses in networks, the partial recovery of their investment costs, or the slow and limited expansion of the service in peripheral settlements (Bakker, 2010;UNESCO, 2019). However, Covid-19 has posed new challenges in terms of health risks, shortages in supply chains, continuity of operations and anticipated financial impacts (World Bank, 2020) not only for public and private large-scale water operators but also for small-scale providers (Corburn et al., 2020;Spearing et al., 2020). ...
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We explore responses of water supply providers during the first stage of the Covid-19 pandemic in Arequipa, Peru, contrasting actions by the public water company, dominant in the city core, and by neighbourhood associations, dominant in the unplanned periphery. The water company implemented instalment payments, the suspension of water shutoffs and the distribution of free water giving priority to the core districts. On the periphery, neighbourhood associations continued to depend mostly on water trucks under irregular and expensive service. The pandemic made more evident the fragmented nature of water supply in cities of the Global South such as Arequipa.
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The long period of great fragility experienced by the lockdown has strained entire countries. In response to COVID-19, Italy performed stay-at-home orders to attenuate disease spread, provoking drastic changes in all aspects of users' behaviour, particularly affecting water demand. A dataset of hourly water demand for 2019, 2020, and 2021, related to five Italian towns permitted to observe water consumption changes. Trends highlight a general decrease in water consumption, linked to the strict restrictions imposed and a morning peak shift. At the end of the strict quarantine regulations, water consumption did not return to pre-pandemic values because COVID-19 has led to a change in lifestyle.
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The pandemic caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) in 2020 led to a significant change in human behaviors, mainly because of the quarantine to avoid the spread of the virus. Measures affected both economic activities and citizens’ behaviors as they developed more intense hygiene habits to avoid contamination and switched to home offices. These exceptional behaviors also affected the way that water is consumed and need to be fully understood to manage supply systems. Therefore, this study aims to investigate changes in residential and commercial water consumption in 31 municipalities in the state of São Paulo, Brazil, during SARS-CoV-2. To do this, the expected consumption for the first half of 2020 was forecasted using the Holt-Winters multiplicative method and compared with the data observed for the same period. In addition, we compared monthly records of new contaminations and the social distancing index to establish a correlation with changes in water consumption. The results show an average difference between forecasted and observed consumption equal to +6.23% and −18.59% for residential and commercial activities, respectively. For the first one, the consumption per capita increased at the rate of 8.44 L.person−1.day−1. The observed changes in consumption seem to be a consequence of hygiene habits, social distancing and the closing of nonessential services in commerce.
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Many companies have fared badly in service due to COVID-19 restrictions and changes in the lifestyle around the United States. Consumers within the United States are potentially faced with service interruptions and the inability to resolve issues for services that are necessary for daily life this is exacerbated by many Americans working from home during the pandemic. The purpose of this research is to analyze the public opinion of Americans living with these service issues via social media. Through the collection and interpretation of this data, we hope that changes may be brought to light. The data was analyzed using natural language processing utilities, and finally, using various inferential statistical methods. The potential implications of the results will be practical for companies moving forward in a post-COVID-19 society. We aimed to show the overall satisfaction of customers during this adjustment period. The research conducted reflected the minimal effect presented by moratoriums ending during our capture dates. Significant results were found between utility types and the overall polarity of customer satisfaction, and possible conclusions are discussed.
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Contamination events in water distribution systems (WDS) are emergencies that cause public health crises and require fast response by the responsible utility manager. Various models have been developed to explore the reactions of relevant stakeholders during a contamination event, including agent-based modeling. As the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the daily habits of communities around the globe, consumer water demands have changed dramatically. In this study, an agent-based modeling framework is developed to explore social dynamics and reactions of water consumers and a utility manager to a contamination event, while considering regular and pandemic demand scenarios. Utility manager agents use graph theory algorithms to place mobile sensor equipment and divide the network in sections that are endangered of being contaminated or cleared again for water consumption. The status of respective network nodes is communicated to consumer agents in real time, and consumer agents adjust their water demands accordingly. This sociotechnological framework is presented using the overview, design, and details protocol. The results comprise comparisons of reactions and demand adjustments of consumers to a water event during normal and pandemic times, while exploring new methods to predict the fate of a contaminant plume in the WDS.
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The COVID-19 pandemic affected the lives of millions of people, radically changing their habits in just a few days. In many countries, containment measures prescribed by national governments restricted the movements of entire communities, with the impossibility of attending schools, universities, workplaces, and no longer allowing for traveling or leading a normal social life. People were then compelled to revise their habits and lifestyles. In such a situation, the availability of drinking water plays a crucial role in ensuring adequate health conditions for people and tackling the spread of the pandemic. Lifestyle of the population, climate, water scarcity and water price are influent factors on water drinking demand and its daily pattern. To analyze the effect of restriction measures on water demand, the instantaneous flow data of five Apulian towns (Italy) during the lockdown have been analyzed highlighting the important role of users’ habits and the not negligible effect of commuters on the water demand pattern besides daily volume requested.
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Drastic changes in electricity demand have been observed since March 2020 in Europe, after several countries implemented lockdown-like measures to contain the spread of COVID-19. We investigate the sensitivity of the electricity-water nexus in the European electric grid to large-scale behavior changes during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown-like measures. We quantify changes in the blue virtual water trade between five European countries heavily affected by COVID-19 during the same period. As a result, the consumptive water footprint of thermal power plant operations in Europe decreased by 1.77 10⁶ m³/day during the COVID-19 lockdowns, compared to the average of the past four years. Reduced electricity demand accounts for 16% (0.29 10⁶ m³/day) of the decrease, while the remainder is attributable to changes in the electricity generation mix towards less water-intensive technologies before 2020 and during lockdowns. Virtual water transfers associated with electricity were also affected: Italy, a hotspot of COVID-19, reduced its water footprint by 8.4% and its virtual water imports by 70,700 m³/day. Germany and France slightly reduced their domestic water footprint of electricity but increased their virtual water imports. These findings improve our understanding on the impacts of large-scale behavior and technological changes to the European electricity-water nexus.
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Bivins, Aaron et al. "Wastewater-Based Epidemiology: Global Collaborative to Maximize Contributions in the Fight Against COVID-19." Environmental Science & Technology (June 2020) © 2020 American Chemical Society
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Existence of SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater has potential implications for environmental transmission of COVID-19 particularly in developing communities. ............................................................................................................................................. Full text of this article has been provided below.
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The COVID-19 pandemic led to drastically altered working practices. During the UK lockdown, a questionnaire was distributed to water professionals to understand their experiences and perceptions of organisational response. Findings were evaluated on the measures of mitigation, adaptation, coping and learning. Employees’ perceived there were adequate procedures to mitigate a threat, partly due to preparations for Brexit. Participants quickly adapted, with eighty-four percent working from home. Coping was experienced at an individual and sector level. IT issues and care responsibilities made it harder for individuals to cope, but good communication and signposting of support helped. Eighty percent felt able to continue their usual role, implying coping mechanisms were effective. At the sector level, coping involved the ability to meet an increased water demand with a remote workforce. Lessons learned highlight the importance of communication and collaboration. Future crisis plans should prepare for prolonged crises of international magnitude and multiple threats.
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An often overlooked, cascading impact of disasters is displaced populations suddenly arriving in neighboring communities. Due to a lack of front-end planning, the infrastructure systems in hosting communities may consequently be challenged as the communities try to accommodate the sudden influx of people. Disaster-induced displacement is not a new trend, yet we know little about how hosting communities respond or how future responses might be improved. The current study aims to address this gap by utilizing the context of the 2018 California Camp Fire, which displaced over 50,000 people. We conducted 13 semi-structured interviews with stakeholders involved in the provision of infrastructure services and qualitatively analyzed the data. This was done to (1) examine the challenges hosting communities faced as they tried to provide infrastructure services—specifically housing, water sector, and transportation—to displaced and existing residents and (2) document the efforts to accommodate displaced persons, taking infrastructure interdependencies into account. Findings show that displacement compounded prior infrastructure issues (e.g., traffic, housing shortage), suggesting that communities can prepare for displacements by assessing their existing capabilities, and as such, anticipate vulnerabilities in their systems when responding to displacement. We also found that practitioners involved in all systems were challenged by communication and organizational issues (e.g., incorporating stakeholders from various institutions).
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The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is, undeniably, a substantial shock to our civilization which has revealed the value of public services that relate to public health. Ensuring a safe and reliable water supply and maintaining water sanitation has become ever more critical during the pandemic. For this reason, researchers and practitioners have promptly investigated the impact associated with the spread of SARS-CoV-2 on water treatment processes, focusing specifically on water disinfection. However, the COVID-19 pandemic impacts multiple aspects of the urban water sector besides those related to the engineering processes, including sanitary, economic, and social consequences which can have significant effects in the near future. Furthermore, this outbreak appears at a time when the water sector was already experiencing a fourth revolution, transitioning toward the digitalisation of the sector, which redefines the Water-Human-Data Nexus. In this contribution, a product of collaboration between academics and practitioners from water utilities, we delve into the multiple impacts that the pandemic is currently causing and their possible consequences in the future. We show how the digitalisation of the water sector can provide useful approaches and tools to help address the impact of the pandemic. We expect this discussion to contribute not only to current challenges, but also to the conceptualization of new projects and the broader task of ameliorating climate change.
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The 2019 coronavirus disease, called COVID-19, is caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). Since it was first identified in China in December 2019, COVID-19 has spread to almost all countries and territories and caused over 310,000 deaths, as on May 16, 2020. The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic are now seen in almost every sector of our society. In this article, I discuss the impacts of COVID-19 on the water sector. I point out that our efforts to control the spread of COVID-19 will increase the water demand and worsen the water quality, leading to additional challenges in water planning and management. In view of the impacts of COVID-19 and other global-scale phenomena influencing water resources (e.g., global climate change), I highlight the urgent need for interdisciplinary collaborations among researchers studying water and new strategies to address water issues.