The Impact of COVID-19: Digital Solutions to Mitigate Infrastructure Costs & Public Health Risks

By Greg Baird


Overnight, our worldview on public health has changed. The global threat of COVID-19 has forced all of us – as individuals, as families, as communities and as water operators – to re-evaluate our priorities. Water and wastewater facilities are re-examining emergency plans, standard operating procedures (SOP) and Continuity of Operations (COOP) plans. Often, these plans assume earthquakes and pandemics are unlikely events. The last major emergency incidents that many utilities responded to were the Avian Influenza virus H5N1 (bird flu) and the swine flu more than a decade ago.

For years, according to the American Water Works Association (AWWA), “Renewal and replacement of aging infrastructure” has topped the charts of most important issues for utilities. “Emergency preparedness” barely cracked the top 10. COVID-19 is showing us that we need to implement solutions that address both renewal and emergency mitigation at the same time.

Public health and medical experts at the World Health Organization (WHO) believed that another pandemic could occur at any time defining a “Pandemic” when an influenza virus with severe health effects undergoes a genetic shift and human to human transmission occurs readily.

Water System Alert Levels

Table 1 shows the relationship between World Health Organization Phases, the US Federal Government Stages, and alert/trigger levels for water systems.

Table 1 – Relation between Water System “Alert Levels” and Pandemic Stages/Phases. Source: National Rural Water Association.

The rapid, global spread of COVID-19 essentially triggered alerts for water and wastewater facilities for Level A and B simultaneously with Level C fast approaching. While there are comprehensive lists of actions to take at each level a few key items are listed below.

Alert Level A – Pre-Pandemic Preparation (Suspected human outbreaks overseas – Confirmed human outbreaks overseas)

  • Establish or finalize necessary pandemic policies: Emergency communications, travel, social distancing, telecommuting, sequestering critical staff on-site, screening employees for influenza, sick leave (for sending employees home that have exceeded sick leave limits or have no accrued sick leave).

Alert Level B – Pandemic (Widespread human outbreaks in multiple locations overseas – First human cases in North America)

  • Implement pandemic policies.
  • Provide supplies at facilities for sequestering essential staff.
  • Focus on conducting essential functions only.

Alert Level C – Pandemic (Spread throughout North America)

  • Consider modifications of treatment to conserve chemicals and energy.
  • Consider sequestering essential personnel at facilities.
  • Keep records of employees that have recovered from influenza. They will be vital for maintaining operations because of their acquired immunity.

Alert Level D – Pandemic Recovery and Preparation (Preparation for Subsequent Pandemic Waves)

  • Restock supplies and update plans

Employee Absenteeism

Water and wastewater utilities’ flu pandemic planning assumptions were originally adopted from the National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza Implementation Plan and Business Continuity Planning Assumptions for Influenza Pandemics from the North American Electric Reliability Council.  While these workforce bio-security assumptions included several waves of flu, each lasting 6-8 weeks and peaking absenteeism at 40 percent, COVID-19, which is caused by a new corona virus, does not follow the known flu virus characteristics. This high degree of uncertainty drives the need for social distancing, shelter in place, and other public health policies.  Many utilities are discussing sequestering options for essential staff and maybe even their families in an effort to protect staff and ensure uninterrupted water and wastewater plant operations.

A recent AWWA survey asked, “What challenges to sustaining business operations is your organization anticipating due to COVID-19?” Of the utilities that responded, 75 percent indicated that “Absenteeism and the Continuity of Operations” was their number-one challenge, with impacts on field operations being number 2 at 46 percent.

As we know, water and wastewater services are critical to every community. Hospitals cannot operate without water and sanitation services. The disruptions to services could be caused by staffing shortages, power disruptions and shortages of chemicals and other supplies. Also, protecting utility employee health is vital for continuing operations, especially if other emergencies — like main breaks or flooding — overlap with the pandemic.

Digital Water Strategies

The coronavirus is yet another reminder of the critical role that drinking water and wastewater systems play in protecting public health and safety, and supporting the social and economic well-being of all communities. In a recent pa­per, “Coronavirus and Water: Immediate Action to Improve Resiliency Now and in the Future” published by WaterWorld, former utility CEOs George Hawkins and Andy Kricun, now with Moonshot Missions, outlined some critical steps to futureproof utilities, including leverag­ing digital water solutions.

Readily-available digital technologies that did not exist a decade ago can help utilities address their major pain points and drive significant economic and environmental improvements. These digital solutions can provide remote monitoring and control of processes and critical infrastructure, ensuring continuity in service when staff are working remotely. Additionally, when absenteeism occurs, digital technologies can augment depleted resources and mitigate the risks of service interruptions. These technologies have also been used during times when utilities have had challenges with recruitment. Using data analytics and implementing digital water strategies delivers direct operational and environmental benefits to a utility operation, both during a crisis and during its resilient recovery.

Bluefield Research reported in January 2020, that “digital water in the U.S. & Canada is forecasted to grow 6.5 percent annually, far outpacing the growth of the broader municipal water and wastewater sector over the next decade.” This is an encouraging sign that more and more, utilities are recognizing the potential for digital technologies to transform their operations and mitigate the risk of failure during a crisis event.

A digital water strategy can include several elements that can decrease risk while also providing financial resilience.

Revenue Protection

It’s critical for a revenue strategy to involve protecting the revenue stream for financial continuity and resilience. New productivity solutions driven by digital technologies offer water utilities powerful new ways to optimize their cash flow while maintaining and improving services. Xylem, a leader in digital water, is working with utilities to help them leverage “decision intelligence.” This concept centers on using advanced data analytics to help water system operators make the best capital and operating decisions.

These decision intelligence solutions have been designed specifically to help utilities increase financial and operational resilience. For example, Xylem’s Hidden Revenue Locator uses cloud-based data analytics to pinpoint revenue losses from unreliable meters in the metering network, which can add up to a significant lost revenue stream for utilities. It enables utilities to unlock significant hidden revenue without the capital expense of a full-scale meter change-out or a rate increase causing affordability issues.

Example: Clayton County Water Authority

When Clayton County Water Authority in Georgia deployed Xylem’s Hidden Revenue Locator, the utility realized sizable gains. In just over four years, the utility identified more than $1 million of recoverable revenue from meter inaccuracies, including those in non-residential meters.

Energy Cost Reduction

Cost containment or cost reduction is another financial strategy. Energy is one of the largest non-personnel costs in most water and wastewater utilities.  Decision intelligence technologies can cut energy costs substantially to unlock cash flow. We know that secondary treatment of wastewater is often the biggest energy user. To address this, new technologies, such as Xylem’s BLU-X Treatment Plant Optimization, use artificial intelligence to optimize the treatment process, reducing energy costs and freeing up operators to focus on other value-added tasks. In addition, wastewater pumping systems with built-in intelligence can reduce the energy consumption of a wastewater pumping station by up to 70% as demonstrated by Xylem’s Flygt Concertor. A case study example of cost savings include:

Example: Plant Cuts Energy Use in Wastewater Treatment

In Cuxhaven Germany, a wastewater treatment plant wanted to reduce energy and chemical consumption while increasing effluent water quality. It used Xylem’s BLU-X platform to predict and calculate the best set points to operate their aerators. The solution reduced aeration energy use by 26%, corresponding to 1.1 million kWh annually – enough energy to power 64 homes for one year.

Infrastructure Renewal Cost Reduction

Water and wastewater utilities maintain huge capital improvement budgets to expand capacity, and to comply with regulations and consent decrees. A decision intelligence approach has shown that utilities can use real-time controls to make better use of their existing systems and reduce the scale of capital improvements to access the actual needs and saving capital dollars in the process.

Example: Real-time controls to make better use of their existing systems

Grand Rapids used Xylem’s BLU-X Collection System Optimization to assess planned infiltration and inflow mitigation projects. By linking these to a common analytic framework, the city concluded that many of these projects were not necessary and reduced its capital infrastructure program to less than $50 million, instead of the original $1 billion estimate.

Procurement and Emergency Funding

Funding operations during emergency conditions can require special planning to adjust to the needs of the supply chain. Tracking crisis-related expenses also ensures reimbursement from federal funds. Streamlining the procurement process and using emergency contracts on credible vendors and proven technologies to reduce the risk and uncertainty is an imperative business continuity policy and strategy.

Procurement and legal expert, Henderson Brown, who has served as principal environmental legal advisor to the Maryland Environmental Service and the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, and two terms as General Counsel for DC Water, urges utilities to pursue such strategies with regard to COVID-19. He states:

These evolving circumstances provide ample basis for utility leaders to consider whether emergency procurement authority should be utilized when deciding how to respond to the novel threats posed by COVID-19. The question to be asked is whether the COVID-19 microbe poses risks to public health, safety and welfare that are of equal or greater rank as other unanticipated natural events. We know that physical consequences to individuals can be extreme. We do not know how long the threat will persist. For these reasons, every short, mid-range and permanent solution designed that has potential to improve the safety of operations and insure or improve reliable service delivery should be invited and placed on the table for evaluation. In addition, every procurement vehicle whether existing or capable of modification should be evaluated to determine the best way to procure the best solution.”

Conclusion

We find ourselves as an industry faced with the ultimate challenge of maintaining water and wastewater operations at all costs. Failure is not an option. This duty and obligation to the communities we serve never changes regardless of the impending risks and uncertainty from natural or man-made disasters, pandemics or other emergency conditions. Digital technologies can improve utility decision making, reduce future costs and help manage risks. These technologies don’t just make economic sense. They ensure line of sight on critical operations, effective business continuity of water and wastewater services and, ultimately, resilience against risk and uncertainty now and into the future.


Greg Baird is president of the Water Finance Research Foundation and a frequent contributor to WF&M. As a management consultant, he specializes in long-term utility planning, infrastructure asset management and capital funding strategies for municipal utilities in the United States. He is an advisor to Xylem and has served as a municipal finance officer in California and as the CFO of Colorado’s third-largest utility.

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