Facilities in the water and wastewater industry are essential to the survival of humans. These facilities provide essential services such as providing clean drinking water and treating wastewater. However, despite the necessity of their services, water and wastewater treatment facilities are often some of the most under-funded facilities.

During the last 15 to 20 years, the water and wastewater industry has had to deal with serious challenges caused by drought conditions, particularly in the southwest region of the U.S. Today, water and wastewater facilities have also had to deal with the challenges posed by COVID-19.

While many businesses have closed during the pandemic, water and wastewater facilities must keep operating. Andrew R. Wheeler, administration of the Environmental Protection Agency, said: “Ensuring that drinking water and wastewater services are fully operational is critical to containing COVID and protecting Americans from other public health risks.” Without clean water and wastewater treatment facilities, the U.S. will have an extremely difficult time defeating COVID.

Because water and wastewater facilities play an important role in our society, the decisions made by facility leaders impact many people. Combined with the depleting number of resources and revenue caused by COVID, decision makers have been feeling growing pressure to make the right decisions for the most common industry challenged brought on by COVID:

Health and Safety

Prior to COVID, approximately 7% or U.S. employees regularly worked from home. Today, over 62% of U.S. workers are working from home. With no set end date to the pandemic, facilities must learn how to quickly adapt their processes to meet increased demand while accommodating necessary safety precautions for their employees. 

How can facilities balance their team’s safety will effectively operating their critical equipment? 

Facilities should consider staffing alternatives and how their day-to-day process workflow can be adjusted to accommodate the changes. Nonessential processes such as administrative work can shift to the home and essential workers can work modified schedules to minimize exposure to COVID. While modified shift schedules will impact work performance, facilities can minimize the impact by thoughtfully determining the critical and non-critical roles of their employees. 

Operations and Process

The demand fluctuations due to COVID combined with pre-existing drought conditions has created numerous unprecedented process challenges for water and wastewater facilities. What is your facility doing to manage biology, back flushing, and other critical issues caused by COVID? 

Decreased flows, increased loads, and the economic downturn are causing facility leaders to quickly visualize a new way to complete their work. Facilities are being forced to accomplish the same end goals with fewer resources and a severely diminished budget. While this is a daunting task, facilities must quickly adapt to the fluctuating demand. 

Continuous Training

While in-person conferences and training can provide value, sometimes, the information covered at these trainings can be high-level and too generic to apply to the specific day-to-day tasks of an operator. Since most of these events have been canceled or postponed, now is the time to get value-based training that can be applied to specific problems facilities face.  

One way facilities can receive value-based training during the pandemic is by creating peer groups with other facilities in their surround area. Facilities located within the same region often experience similar challenge. For example, casino wastewater treatment facilities in the same area experience the challenge of having their level of flow plummet once tourism abruptly halted. These facilities had to quickly address challenges such as what to do with their biology while balancing the safety of their employees. Peer groups can help facilities share their findings with other facilities and be better prepared for pandemics in the future. 

Economic Impacts & Budget

On average, many water and wastewater facilities have experienced a 15-20% loss of revenue. While facilities can temporarily rely on financial reserves, eventually, the money will run out. If facilities do not have a set plan in place, they will not be able to operate. 

Unfortunately, one way facilities have been immediately minimizing costs is by furloughing employees. While furloughing is not something facility leaders want to do, it is often something that is necessary for many facilities to continue operating. If furloughing is necessary, facility leaders need to ensure they furlough based on risk analysis or criticality of service. Simply laying off whole departments will not help facilities maintain efficient operations. 

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