Saving Lives with Human-to-Machine Interface: Wastewater Lessons from COVID-19

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By Shannon C. Markham

“These are truly unprecedented times.” If you have not heard this phrase 100 times in the last few months then you must have recently awoken from a lengthy slumber.

The impact of the COVID-19 crisis has been widespread and thorough, affecting countless facets of our modern society. A worldwide pandemic of this nature may be truly unprecedented for how rapidly it has spread and for its depth of disruption to our modern day lives. But it shares a common thread with similar pandemics from which the water and wastewater industry was born, and which we can learn from today.

Automation, instrumentation and controls, remote access, remote monitoring and remote controls have never been more important than they are now in helping keep our economy afloat, as social isolation has proven to be a very effective tool in dealing with COVID-19. With multiple resurging waves likely to occur before an effective vaccine is available, human-to-machine interfaces (HMIs) are truly a lifesaver in the water and wastewater world as they can greatly reduce the amount of human-to-human contact and maybe more importantly, human-to-human waste interface.

Since the inception of water and wastewater treatment in the mid-19th century, only a few historical events have changed the way we think and operate when it comes to our public water and wastewater systems, aside from technological advancements. The Great Stink of London in 1858, for example, brought unprecedented attention to the link between inadequate sewage collection and treatment to contagious disease transmission. The design and construction of a more comprehensive and functional sewer system brought an end to the cholera outbreaks.

The occurrence of typhoid fever in the United States by 1900 reached an infection rate of approximately 100 cases per 100,000 people. This public health crisis, which was transmitted largely through drinking water, played a large factor in the passage of the 1912 U.S. Public Health Service Act and the establishment of national drinking water standards for treatment and disinfection.

The Cuyahoga River burning event in 1969 is credited with igniting the formation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and establishment of the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) to protect our drinking water sources. The SDWA and power granted to the EPA have fueled an ever-increasing appreciation for protecting water throughout the entire water cycle, without which the United States may not be the global economic leader it is today.

The events of 9/11, although not a global pandemic, forever changed the way we treat our water resources infrastructure by highlighting the vulnerability of our water systems to intentional contamination and destruction. As a result, we as a country have taken significant steps to protect against these vulnerabilities by limiting public access and information. Response to 9/11 also brought awareness to the potential for cyber attacks as operational monitoring and controls were being tied to computer systems with internet access. This vulnerability awareness has greatly slowed the instatement of remote monitoring and control within water and wastewater treatment for fear that such capabilities might be hacked and used for ill will.

In the years since 9/11, we have seen tremendous technological advancements that have brought about smart homes with lighting, HVAC, and security systems that can be monitored and controlled automatically or in real-time from your cell phone. We have real-time traffic monitoring that can warn us of traffic incidents and select faster travel routes. We even have reliable facial recognition software and autonomous vehicles.

Our modern lives have grown far more advanced from the days of the Great Stink in London, yet our society is once again experiencing the broad-ranging disruption of a largely uncontrollable pandemic. The arrival and spread of COVID-19 in the United States has highlighted not only our vulnerability to pandemics, but also the need to adapt to prolonged periods of isolated personal contact. Our drastically and suddenly increased reliance on remote working has tested the capacity, reliability and safety of our digital information highways. While there has been a minor glitch or two, our hardware and software have largely withstood the test. And even more importantly, we have become much more comfortable using and relying upon them for both essential and nonessential practices and needs.

As we continue to learn more about COVID-19 each day, this global disruption has elevated the awareness that our advanced modern society is still extremely vulnerable to disease. Arguably, few are more vulnerable to infection or contamination than wastewater treatment operators, who face daily potential exposure to viruses and diseases present in large population waste that are then conveyed through wastewater treatment facilities. These operators need protection, for their sake and our own – they hold an incredibly important role in limiting the potential spread of disease. The wastewater treatment process can remove and destroy viruses on a large scale, making it a key part of any infection management plan.

Rather than shying away from remote monitoring and controls, we should be implementing, utilizing and enhancing more automation. COVID-19 should serve as a major wake-up call by highlighting the risk of disease to our water and wastewater systems as we are likely to face a deadlier outbreak in the future. Now is the time to assess your Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems and put plans in place to improve and maintain your remote capabilities in preparation for the next outbreak.

Embracing technology is a low-cost option for protecting our valuable water and wastewater workforce, and we cannot afford to wait for the next COVID to learn these lessons. Stimulus funding may soon be available to help offset the cost, and any treatment facilities that currently lack remote functioning should jump at the opportunity. As we have responded to each of the major disruptive events in history, let us respond now to adjust our capabilities and protect our environment and health for generations to come.

Shannon C. Markham, P.E., is water resources practice leader and senior vice president at T&M Associates. He has more than 20 years of experience in the planning, design and construction of complex infrastructure projects related to water quality, water and wastewater treatment plants, collection systems and CSO programs.

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