By Kevin Westerling,
It’s been a helluva year, and we’re barely halfway through it.
The arrival of coronavirus and COVID-19 required so much of our focus and energy that it overshadowed a stockpile of existing problems. In many cases, it exacerbated those problems, like throwing fuel on a fire. While the primary concern has been to preserve our collective health, we must also figure out how to recoup, recalibrate, and rebuild for the future. This is particularly true for the long-underfunded and often-understaffed water sector, also primarily concerned with public health. At the start of the year, our list of maladies included perand polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS); lead in drinking water, which can be tied to another issue, old infrastructure; algal blooms polluting environmental waters; climate-influenced severe weather, including droughts and floods; and renewing the ranks of water and wastewater operators, who are retiring at a rapid rate. Enter COVID-19, and as with any illness, these preexisting conditions make it harder to recover.
And, yet, water and wastewater customers likely haven’t noticed a change in their services. In fact, they may have seen their bills reduced due to leniency during the pandemic. It is a testament to utility leadership to think of the public’s well-being first in this way. But what comes next?
As we sheltered in place, I spoke with AWWA’s CEO, David LaFrance, to get his take on the challenges that water and wastewater professionals, particularly his association and their members — more than 50,000 strong — have been dealing with since before “shelter in place” and “social distancing” were common terms, and how these challenges are affected by the “new normal.”
David imbued the conversation with some much-needed optimism — a fitting tone for one of the leading voices of an industry characterized by resiliency.
How is COVID-19 affecting the water industry and AWWA?
I think the speed at which we all have started to adjust to COVID-19 is really remarkable, and it’s forced all of us to think and act a little bit differently. As it relates to the water sector, I have been incredibly impressed with the community commitment of the utilities. Ninety-six percent of utilities have continued to provide water service to their customers, even when those customers are unable to pay their water bill. There was no edict. There was no regulation. There was no requirement. They just did it because it was the right thing to do, and I think that speaks volumes for water utilities.
At AWWA, we felt the impact mostly through our reliance on face-to-face meetings like ACE [AWWA’s Annual Conference & Exposition] and other conferences or trainings that we have. But it has forced us to go to our core principles, the top of which is protecting public health. We’re not going to have events that put the public’s and the water professionals’ health at risk because it violates that core principle. Instead, what we’ve done is shifted to getting out the important information to our members through webinars, conference calls, Zoom meetings — any way that we can do it in a safe environment. I’m so proud of the utilities and the way everybody has responded to adjusting to this new, complicated position. I do think we’re meant to be together, but at the same time we’re finding other ways to do that.
There was already a long list of challenges facing utilities before the crisis, and funding was never quite where it needed to be. Have those challenges just gotten worse?
It’s interesting. AWWA had a conversation with Moody’s, the rating agency, and their outlook for the water sector is still very positive. The water sector has a good credit rating, and they see us as being financially prepared, reasonable, and able to weather challenges as we have in the past. They think that we’re well-positioned for this.
And our surveys tell us that utilities are already taking actions to trim budgets and save money to help support their customers. Oftentimes, water treatment operators were sheltering at the treatment plants, running shifts but also essentially living there. Those operators were away from their families so that they could help protect all of our families. That’s part of the nobility of being a water professional.
Please talk about what was the biggest story before coronavirus — PFAS — and how solutions to that crisis are progressing.
PFAS is still an important issue and one that the public is keenly concerned about it, as are water professionals and the U.S. EPA. AWWA supports the regulation of PFAS, in particular PFOA and PFOS. We gave a lot of thought to what principles really matter as EPA started to set up the regulations, and we boiled those down to four things that we think are important. First is the commitment to protecting public health and safety. We also feel that there needs to be a fidelity to scientific process, and that’s a place where the regulation of PFAS maybe isn’t as strong as it could be. Third, as it relates to PFAS in particular, is the importance of protecting source water, which is usually the recipient of PFAS. And then, of course, for these sorts of emerging contaminants, there needs to be a commitment to research to ensure that whatever we’re doing is the right thing to do. With a commitment to those four things, I think we will be doing enough to address the PFAS concerns.
How about the progress with the Lead and Copper Rule and lead service line replacement? Do you feel enough is being done to protect the public?
AWWA has been committed to the idea of getting lead service lines out for a long time. I know it’s really frustrating that it isn’t as simple as we’d like, but it’s going to take time. “Time without undue delay” — that is the mantra we have to follow.
Let me highlight two related parts of the new rule that AWWA feels will be important. First, the rule will require water utilities of all sizes to develop inventories of lead service lines in their service area and to share that information with their communities. Service lines are frequently co-owned by the utility and the homeowner, so getting that inventory and making sure that the homeowners know about it is important because, together, the right decisions can be made.
Second, the rule requires water utilities to develop a plan for the removal of all lead service lines — in their entirety — over time. There needs to be a systematic plan to protect customers today, while we work to provide the ultimate protection by removing those lead service lines completely in the future. I think those are the right strategies.
Is it possible to project the financial impact of COVID-19 on the water industry?
I can tell you with some certainty that there will be financial impacts on utilities and their communities. We did a report in collaboration with one of our sister associations, AMWA [Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies], with research and analysis done by Raftelis financial consultants. The report found a $14-billion financial impact to U.S. utilities, in aggregate, due to forgoing delinquent payments and other steps taken because of COVID-19. As a result, utilities naturally start to cut their budgets, but they are also cutting capital projects. Those capital projects employ construction and other types of people from the community. The ripple effect is estimated to be about $32.7 billion and will affect somewhere between 75,000 and 90,000 jobs. So utilities have had to balance their budgets in different ways, and those impacts will affect not just the utility but also the communities they serve.
How do you envision industry events, such as ACE, adjusting as we move forward?
I don’t see face-to-face going away, but I do see virtual as being an important component. There’s going to be a period of time when people will be uncomfortable getting on a plane or going into places where social distancing is complicated. Associations like AWWA need to make sure that face-to-face conferences have strategies to help with that sort of social distance.
We’re definitely going to continue to have face-to-face, but we’re going to be ramping up on virtual and digital, which will help us to reach more audiences — younger audiences, international audiences, people who are just busy and too on-the-go to be there physically. I can imagine a world where those people are actually engaging with the people who are there physically. If we just make it bigger and better, it will ultimately help us with our mission and vision. I think it’s going to be a great new world for us, and I’m looking forward to it.