Will the water still run during a pandemic?

(CIDRAP Source Weekly Briefing) – Has your business taken into account what happens to your water supply when an influenza pandemic begins? Do you know whether the water utilities that serve your enterprise are prepared to keep the water running and safe for your operations and employees?

In Texas, Eugene "Buck" Henderson has repeatedly invited the state's 6,700 water utilities to sign up for a free mutual aid program that would give them onsite emergency assistance in an influenza pandemic or natural disaster if they agree to help other utilities as needed.

Fewer than 300 have taken him up on it.

Just as surprising, the number that signed up for another free preparedness resource—installation of an electrical harness for quick hookup to a generator—didn't even break 100, says Henderson, manager of the public drinking water section of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) based in Austin. "My greatest concern is for the smaller water systems, especially those that supply less than 3,300 businesses and households, because they have not been required to have a vulnerability assessment and an emergency response plan," as have the bigger plants, he says.

The inertia is especially puzzling, given that Hurricane Rita incapacitated 1,100 water utilities along the southeastern Texas coast in September 2005, according to Henderson. Some were up and running again in a day or 2, but others took 3 months to recover. In the meantime, they relied on just the sort of assistance that the Texas Water/Wastewater Agency Response Network TxWARN would provide: emergency generators, staff, and other supplies.

"People have a tendency not to see an urgent situation until it happens," he says. "Water is sometimes taken for granted until it isn't there—until the well runs dry." But imagine what could happen (or not happen) to your enterprise if water stops running, pumps shut down, or purification cannot be guaranteed during an influenza pandemic.

Brian Good has. The director of operations and maintenance for Denver Water estimates at least 110 of the utility's 1,100 employees will be needed to ensure uninterrupted service to its 1.2 million customers, make major repairs, and do limited meter reading, billing, and information technology (IT) support. He's developed a cross-training program to allow operation with such a "barebones" staff.

Further, Good has purchased 2,000 N-95 respirators and stashed 37 emergency kits containing tools, sleeping bags, and food at different locations. The kits, which Good estimates could sustain 2 people for 3 to 5 days, are marked with dates and shrink-wrapped. The utility has its own medical clinic and plans to identify and track employees who recover from pandemic influenza (if there is a way to distinguish such employees from those who have had seasonal flu or other illnesses). Presumably, recovered employees would have developed immunity and could return to work after the first wave of infection.

Some water utilities are ahead of others in planning for a pandemic, says Kevin Morley, regulatory analyst for the American Water Works Association (AWWA), a trade organization headquartered in Denver, representing 4,700 water utilities. "People are thinking about it," he says. Even so, he adds, questions remain about what would be expected of a utility and the surrounding community.

Workers first

What water utilities do seem to agree on is this: of the 3 essential and interrelated resources—workers, electrical power, and chemicals—workers are the most critical. Although the effects of a pandemic on a workforce are unpredictable, no one disputes that small utilities will be hardest hit, Morley says. "Thirty to 40% of a utility that has 400 or 500 employees is going to be different than 30 to 40% of a utility that has 10 employees."

In Texas, says Henderson, "If you count all the water systems that serve fewer than 3,300 households or businesses, that's 80%."

That's why the AWWA and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have teamed up to help water utilities form intrastate—and soon, interstate—mutual aid pacts, similar to TxWARN. Such agreements are intended to enable utilities to get assistance without waiting for the federal government. Utilities who sign up for a pact identify their own needs and what resources they could offer another utility in an emergency. And that's important. "For the first 72 hours, you're on your own," Morley says.

In addition to Texas, California, Florida, and Louisiana have established mutual-aid pacts, and Oregon, Georgia, Tennessee, New Jersey, and Connecticut are well on their way, according to John Whitler of the EPA's Water Security Division. Other states, such as Oregon, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa, are in various stages of planning, he says.

In addition to the mutual aid pacts, the EPA is offering water utilities several business-continuity tools, says Jane Downing, chief of the EPA's Drinking Water Branch in Boston. "We're working with EPA headquarters to develop a cross-training compendium," she says. The catalog will point operators to online resources to ramp up their expertise on, for example, disinfection.

However, not all roles lend themselves to cross-training. In the case of a laboratory worker who processes federally mandated water samples, Morley says, regulations may have to be temporarily relaxed. "You may not be able to take all of those samples, and the labs may not be able to process them," he says.

Whether workers are going to be willing to come to work—let alone to help out another utility—is another issue, Morley says. "You're basically asking someone to go into a known infectious area, expose themselves, and then risk bringing it back to their families," he says.

Depending on power and IT

Power and water often have a reciprocal relationship, Good says. "The type of power plants we have, a lot of them rely on our water," he says. "They can't run without our water, and we can't run without their power."

Denver Water has placed diesel generators at critical facilities and invested in polyvinyl water storage bladders that can be distributed to central locations in the event of a loss of water pressure. The only "downside" of this plan, says Good, is that it relies on "people getting together," which could potentially spread infection.

Utilities with their own telecommunications system will fare best at sustaining operations and communicating with vendors, partners, suppliers and employees, experts say. In Texas, says Henderson, the TCEQ provides its own IT services and has provided notebook computers for workers in the field to allow workers critical access to databases of the area's water systems.

Utilities that contract for services may encounter fierce competition for bandwidth as other organizations, a panicked public, and bored schoolchildren log on to the Internet, Morley says.

'Upstream' supply chain

Water utilities require disinfectants such as chlorine to make water drinkable. And because water utilities can store only about 3 weeks' worth of chlorine, they rely heavily on suppliers. While Good believes his pandemic plan is solid, "the problem is that our plan is only as good as the plan of our suppliers."

A disruption could occur at each link in the supply chain, including the production of chlorine and other treatment chemicals by petrochemical companies in the United States and Canada, Morley says. "There is no sector that is immune from the effects of a pandemic," he says. "If 30% of my workforce is affected, why wouldn't 30% of their workforce be affected?" A little further down the chain, a transportation breakdown (rail or highway) is also a likely scenario.

Not wanting to take chances, Good had representatives from the US Department of Homeland Security tour Denver Water. "They have assured us that they can help, as far as distributing chlorine to some of the plants, if we need it," he says. To conserve supplies in a pandemic, Denver Water may introduce water rationing, similar to restrictions enacted in a drought, and temporarily shut down 2 of its 4 plants.

The EPA will continue to work with state regulatory agencies and water trade associations to conduct community-based emergency preparedness workshops, doing the drills and presentations it has since 9/11, now expanding its efforts toward pandemic preparedness, Downing says. But first, she says, "A lot of the efforts need to start to happen locally."

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