Every economic sector has been affected by COVID-19. The sustainable management of water resources and utilities has never been more vital than now given the increased residential demand and requirements for new health and safety protocols in the workplace.

Water and wastewater utilities have passed through the ‘awareness’ stage of the pandemic and have a good grasp of its immediate impacts. Now it is time for municipalities, public works and water utilities to take responsive action so they are prepared for the post-pandemic challenges of providing continuous services.

The following sections provide guidance on what utilities will need to do to plan ahead and ensure the continued operation of water and wastewater facilities without disruption.

1. Business Continuity Plan

In response to COVID-19, utilities are trying to mandate additional measures to ensure the continuous and safe delivery of water to the public. There is still room, however, for further short- and long-term operational planning. Treatment plants operate 24/7 and, with changing demands related to the virus, they will need to prioritize essential works and make adjustments to work shifts to ensure the plants run without interruption.

Municipalities, public works and water utilities should develop their Emergency Response and Crisis Management plans – or review their existing plans – to identify and close gaps that may be obvious since the onset of the pandemic. In addition, they should consider addressing future risk by updating and/or implementing a risk-based Asset Management Plan. This will create an opportunity for utilities’ to support their long-term operations, while also reducing water contamination risks and improving water resiliency.

Most agencies and public works are now reviewing their emergency preparedness plans to account for pandemic scenarios in the future.

Utilities will also need to assess their infrastructure and develop or update a Business Continuity Plan to address new remote work requirements and team and/or stakeholder communications. Emergency response and business continuity plans generally do not include a pandemic emergency case. Not surprisingly, most agencies and public works are now reviewing their emergency preparedness plans to account for similar scenarios in the future.

Reductions in workforce availability in the manufacturing industry have also impacted production and logistics supply chains, leading to a scarcity of consumables, chemicals and spare parts essential for water facility operations and maintenance. The utilities need to order these supplies well in advance of any planned upgrade or new water utility construction work to ensure manpower availability and material supply.

2. Revenues and Capital Investments

Another outcome of this pandemic and ‘stay at home’ guidance has been a significant change in water consumption in most jurisdictions. Water consumption has increased notably in residential areas, while decreasing in commercial and industrial sectors. Now that these economic sectors are restarting, we are likely to see a steady increase in water consumption along with continued demand for domestic water supplies to maintain high hygiene levels through frequent hand and clothes washing. This will put pressure on the utilities and operations – a potentially sustained change they will need to be prepared to address.

Increased domestic water consumption has not been enough to offset the drop in industrial and commercial use.

All utilities have also experienced a hit to their rate structures, with revenues negatively impacted since businesses shut down in mid-March 2020. Increased domestic water consumption has not been enough to offset the drop in industrial and commercial use. In addition, water utilities have seen an increase in collection delinquencies because of business closures and high unemployment rates during this difficult time. Despite all this, utilities have realized that they are essential, and have a responsibility to keep their water services running. Access to clean water is critical to our communities, helping them to stay healthy and safe.

The stimulus funding the Federal government is expected to announce to get the economy back on track will help support utilities through the recovery period. Once funds are available and the utility level agreement over stimulus support is reached, utilities will need to identify the projects they will advance. Additionally, they can start to reprioritize their short-term future works and commence capital programs.

3. Planning Ahead

This pandemic has challenged existing water system and water supply management through revenue reductions, staffing challenges and supply chain disruptions already discussed. However, it has also given utilities the opportunity to assess the current status of their operations, develop new performance and efficiency imperatives, and consider the changes or improvements needed to improve their infrastructure, policies and procedures.

Many future project works have slowed down or been put on hold because of the pandemic, and this will continue until water utilities determine which areas they need to prioritize and what the ‘new normal’ will look like. Utilities need to assess how they are going to prepare for the future. Is there a chance they will return to status quo operations pre-COVID-19, or will adjustments and movement be needed to ensure business continuity?

It is most likely that utilities will focus on strategic planning, risk and asset management, and – most importantly – investing in people by establishing a balance between remote work and protective workplace measures that will allow staff to safety deliver essential water operations.