Water and COVID-19: Challenges and Opportunities

June 4, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted every aspect of life in the United States. It has significant implications for water and wastewater systems. Consider these examples.

Drinking Water

There is mostly good news about drinking water. We know that infected individuals can shed the virus in fecal matter, which then enters the sewer system. But wastewater treatment technology regularly removes viruses and pathogens, so there is little risk that COVID-19 would end up in drinking water. It could get into the environment through cracks in sewer pipes or after heavy storms, when treatment plants are overwhelmed with combined storm and sewer water. But epidemiologists think the virus has become inactive by the time it gets into the sewer system.

Water Accessibility and Water Utility Revenues

As national unemployment reached levels not seen since the Great Depression, millions of Americans find themselves unable to pay their water bills. Nonpayment usually results in termination of service.

In recent years, water accessibility has emerged as a major social problem. Even though water rates in the United States are extremely low, pegged to recapture only the cost of service, many Americans — from South Texas, to tribal reservations, to farmworker communities in California’s Central Valley — don’t have safe running water.

Many large cities have recently developed programs to forgive or reduce water bills. The enormity of the COVID-19 crisis has prompted most water providers to respond compassionately, with forgiveness or loan programs. A congressional proposal would create a national consumer aid program for water bills. One already exists for energy bills.

Without federal help, water utilities are facing huge reductions in revenues. A recent American Water Works Association report pegged the number at $13.9 billion. An estimate for rural water utilities, who typically serve fewer than 500 customers, concludes they will lose approximately $1 billion. Large losses are also predicted for wastewater utilities.

The water and wastewater infrastructure in the United States has fallen into disrepair, especially as federal funding has precipitously declined. It makes economic sense for Congress to enact a major water infrastructure bill, which would arrest further decline, create jobs, and stimulate the economy.

Some Good News: Testing for COVID-19 in Sewage Water

As the country searches for safe ways to reopen, it’s facing a shortage of testing kits, misleading false negatives, and uncounted asymptomatic victims. New research suggests that testing a city’s sewer water before treatment may provide an early warning for the presence and magnitude of the virus. A study from the Netherlands identified the presence of the virus before public health officials documented the first victim.

Such testing offers a critical tool in determining appropriate safeguards for reopening the economy. It’s easier, faster and cheaper than testing individuals.  Still, it’s such a new process that important questions, such as predicting how many people are sick, are not yet answerable. Testing sewer water provides a baseline against which changes suggest a surge or a reduction. In other words, testing sewer water offers a community-wide snapshot not a diagnosis that any particular individual is infected. But it can document the spread of the disease, which would be enormously helpful as a surveillance tool.

Such testing could provide an early indication of the reemergence of the disease, which would enable public health authorities to mitigate the spread. Ian Pepper and Charles Gerba, scientists at the University of Arizona, have been working with Pima County, Arizona, for the past two months to test sewer water. They recently proposed to collect samples from interceptor sewers as the water leaves the campus, rather than at the centralized treatment plant ten miles away. By targeting specific dormitories or discrete colleges, such testing would better enable the University to decide when to allow students to return.