| Water heroes sacrifice time at home to ensure service continues
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Water heroes sacrifice time at home to ensure service continues

To protect critical water treatment plant employees from being exposed to COVID-19 while maintaining business continuity, some utility members of the American Water Works Association are housing operational teams on site.

Campers at Des Moines Water Works treatment plant“This is what it takes to ensure we can treat the water and distribute it to half a million people in central Iowa,” said Ted Corrigan, interim CEO and general manager with Des Moines Water Works (DMWW). The utility provides retail and wholesale service to about a sixth of the state’s population.

On March 23, DMWW sequestered 21 willing employees based on operational needs at its three water treatment plants, rotating them through 12-hour shifts and housing them for two weeks at a time in campers (pictured right) with access to food, laundry facilities and internet access.

After four weeks, the practice was suspended at its two smaller treatment plants but still continues with 11 employees at DMWW’s main plant, where the system’s centralized control center and plant operators are located. They include operations, maintenance and supervision staff from the water production department.
Ted Corrigan
“We have a limited number of operators who are trained and certified to operate our system,” said Corrigan (pictured right). “With the challenges of our limited number of qualified staff and a single control center, we felt sequestering staff on-site was the best way to meet our obligation to continue service to our customers. Every employee in the department agreed, voluntarily, to participate in the sequestration process.”

In taking this unprecedented step, DMWW drew from a Contagious Disease Response Plan it had developed in 2009. The plan included an isolation phase, which had not been implemented until the current COVID-19 pandemic.

“Everyone, including our Board of Trustees and union leadership, recognized their critical role in supporting the public health of our community and agreed with the decision to sequester,” Corrigan said. “Once the decision was made, it took about two weeks to prepare.”

Sharing knowledge and strategies

Trailers at Cape Fear Public Utility Authority treatment plantIn North Carolina, Cape Fear Public Utility Authority (CFPUA) officials concerned about employees’ exposure to COVID-19 also came to the decision to house essential operational crews at treatment facilities.

“We spoke with staff at Des Moines Water Works and Greater Cincinnati Water Works about how they were planning to reduce their operators’ contact with the general community, and by April 1 we had trailers rented, provisioned, and fully set up at our Sweeney Water Treatment Plant and the Richardson Nanofiltration Plant,” said Carel Vandermeyden, CFPUA’s deputy executive director. (Photos courtesy of CFPUA)

“We didn’t want our licensed operators to get sick or potentially expose others on their crews,” he added. “You can’t just pick somebody off the street to replace them; they have years of education and experience.”
Water treatment plant worker
On April 6, rented trailers (pictured above) at the Sweeney Water Treatment Plant and the Richardson Nanofiltration Plant became home, sweet home, for seven operators working 12-hour shifts for seven-day periods. At the end of each week, the team disinfects their trailers and another crew of seven operators takes over. Before returning to the plant, staff take their temperatures and report any potential COVID-19 symptoms.

“The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency made it very clear that ensuring drinking water services remain fully operational is critical to containing COVID-19 and protecting Americans from other public health risks,” Vandermeyden said. “These multi-day shifts reduce opportunities for these operators to become exposed to COVID-19. CFPUA will continue this plan for as long as the situation warrants.”

Committed to serving community

A similar approach is being taken in central Tennessee by Clarksville Gas & Water, a municipal utility that provides water and wastewater services to about 160,000 residents in Clarksville and Montgomery County. CGW also provides natural gas service to more than 28,000 customers. (Photos courtesy of CGW)
Living quarters within treatment plant
“With the uncertainty of what was ahead of us, we felt that operating both our water and wastewater treatment plants with a limited staff for seven days on shift and seven days off was the best approach,” said Mark Riggins, CGW’s general manager.

“We work in a specialized field that never stops and only a few people can fill the roles of our state certified plant operators,” he added. “If these operators were affected by the coronavirus pandemic, our plant operations would suffer tremendously and put a strain on our ability to serve the community.”

Prior to implementing an on-site strategy, CWG’s plant managers discussed the approach with their staffs. All employees said they were ready and willing to step up to the challenge, which involves sequestering teams of operators to stay in make-shift living quarters (pictured above) within the two treatment plants, segregated from other employees and vendors.

The water plant alternates two groups of four Grade 3 and 4 water treatment operators, which perform laboratory analyses and operate water distribution pumps to maintain Clarksville water plant operatortank levels. The wastewater plant rotates four groups of five employees, including a lab technician, mechanic, solids dewatering operator and two plant operators. Operators are segregated from other plant employees and vendors.

Each Monday the groups on shift go home for a week and the next group takes over. Plant managers ensure food and daily supplies are stocked, operations run smoothly, and stringent cleaning and hygiene protocols are followed.

“We commend our entire team of 268 employees for stepping up in this time of crisis to maintain continuity in all areas, including water and wastewater treatment plants, gas and water distribution, wastewater collections operations, customer service, engineering, and administrative support staff,” Riggins said. “Our priority is to ensure customers continue to receive essential services efficiently and safely.”