A Waterfront View in the Time of Coronavirus

Here we are, just a little over two months since the first confirmed U.S. coronavirus infection. The first confirmed COVID-19 death in the U.S. was less than six weeks ago, right about the time I last stepped off a plane, returning from the Utility Management Conference in Anaheim CA.  Other than counting to twenty while washing my hands – an action that occurred with growing frequency – not much else in my life had change.  That seems like a very long time ago.

I’m lucky to be able to say that my extended family remains healthy and is doing its part to #StayHome. Yes, my life has been upended, but I realize how lucky I am to not have to worry about food, shelter, health insurance, or even toilet paper (which which we buy in bulk about once a year – another story for another time).  I’ve had a string of out-of-state trips canceled, but I otherwise work from home so my commute from the kitchen to the third floor is unchanged.

I’ve cheered from the sidelines as the Water Environment Federation staff and member-volunteers have quickly ramped up their capacity to provide up-to-date information on coronavirus management to water sector professionals, many of whom are on the front lines of this epidemic. And I’ve asked questions. It’s what I do.

As many of us anticipated and has been widely reported, air pollution*has dropped precipitously as the virus and accompanying illness have marched across the globe.  (Side note: new data suggest that lifetime exposure to air pollution predisposes one to greater susceptibility to coronavirus, perhaps not unlike smoking.) 

It makes sense that air pollution would drop as a result of social changes: people are staying in place, not driving cars and not flying on airplanes. But if some of the change is from decreased industrial production, wouldn’t there also be a change in water consumption? As schools and businesses shut down, wouldn’t there be a change in where the water is used?

I set out to get an answer to these burning questions by the age-old, scientific method of putting the question out to the Twitter-sphere on the morning of April 1st:

Capture 0 - my question

At the time we were (and still are) relatively early in the social distancing experience. The closing of schools, restaurants, sporting venues, and businesses of all sorts started seriously closing down the week of March 15th, will the full brunt of it hitting the following week. In other words, my question was coming before most water utilities would have a full billing cycle to analyze, but I figured it was worth asking.

Madison, Wisconsin’s water utility, serving state government and the state’s flagship university, wrote:

Capture 4 - Mad Water

A number of water utilities wrote that residential use was up and commercial use was down (no big surprise), and suburban utilities that serve primarily residential customers were seeing increased demand (again, confirming what one would expect). A few were able to put some detail to the observation.

San Francisco Public Utilities Commission had measured the change relatively precisely:

Capture 5 - SF Water

Loudoun Water (Virginia) reported a shift in the timing of water use that presumably others were seeing but didn’t mention. If you don’t have to commute to work, why get up and shower at 5:30 am!

Capture 9 Loudon

Kenneth Waldroup, Assistant Public Utilities Director for Raleigh, North Carolina noted that two neighboring communities, each of which use AMI (advanced metering infrastructure), had a good bead on the changes in their water demand. Cary and Salisbury-Rowan utilities, both serving residential communities, noticed 14% and 10-11% increases respectively.  Raleigh, despite being home to NC State and some smaller colleges, wasn’t reporting much change in the volume of water pumped, but because the utility uses AMR (automated meter reading, which still requires the utility to go out and collect the data) it may take them awhile to know the full impact.

Changes in sewage volumes (as opposed to water distribution) are historically harder to track, especially because rainfall can obfuscate the data, but it’s not impossible.  Some utilities, like Prince William County (Virginia),  Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, and Clean Water Services (Oregon) reported that volumes seemed more or less the same, though Arlington (Virginia) observed a slight decline in volume.

Capture 11 - Arlington

In keeping with the shift in patterns (from commercial / institutional to residential), Ifetayo Venner of Arcadis reported shifts in pump-station flow that messed with their carefully planned work schedules:

Capture 2 - Ifetayo

And then, of course, there are the clogged pipes.

Capture 3 - Wittwer

Capture 7 - Clean Water Services

It isn’t just our friends in Texas (Clarence Wittwer, above) and Oregon: the problem with clogs in the time of coronavirus is universal with desperate people tormenting their home’s plumbing and community sewers with wipes, napkins, paper towels, t-shirts, and all sorts of never-to-be-flushed items.

We all look forward to being able to put this pandemic behind us.  Too many lives have been and will be lost due to COVID-19. And we have yet to fully fathom the economic hardship it will leave in its wake.  However, perhaps there are two positive, water-related silver linings that can emerge.

(1) A new appreciation for the role of water and wastewater professionals in our communities, especially the operators on the front lines, and especially in the time of a pandemic.  Imagine how much worse this would be if we didn’t have water and sanitation.

(2) A universal understanding that there are only three things you should flush: Pee, poop, and TP!

* After posting this piece, I found this more up-to-date article on the pandemic’s impact on air pollution

Toilet rules

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