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CWWA: Ensuring safety and business continuity for water services

The supply of safe drinking water and effective management of wastewater are essential operations at any time, but especially during a pandemic. We spoke with Robert Haller, Executive Director at the Canadian Water and Wastewater Association (CWWA) regarding how water and wastewater organizations can protect their staff and manage their workforce to ensure business continuity.

How can Federal and Provincial governments support water and wastewater organizations

Haller: Water organizations and their staff should be classified as an essential service and given a similar level of priority as first responders with resources allocated for them as such. Further, governments should ensure that water operators have access to personal protective equipment (PPE) and be eligible for services such as childcare to allow them to continue operations with a minimum of undue stress. 

How can water and wastewater organizations protect their staff?

Haller: Even though water operators are at work, social distancing methods can still be deployed. For example, we can group crews into separate rotations that do not interact physically with each other and issue directives to workers to remain home when not at work. Of course, staff that can work from home, should and are doing so. We can also assist further by implementing assistance services for staff who may need to self-isolate, such as grocery delivery. In a more extreme context, trailers could be provided to staff to live on-site to further reduce their exposure. 

What are some ways in which water and wastewater organizations can ensure business continuity?

Haller: As outlined in the CWWA pandemic action plan, a couple of crucial measures include identifying essential skill sets and cross training. 

Essential skills should be further classified into those that are needed for Critical, Vital, Necessary and Desired services. At one end of this spectrum are Critical services, which are those that must be restored immediately to prevent loss of life and infrastructure destruction, among other consequences. At the other end of the spectrum are Desired services, which are those that could be delayed for a couple of weeks or longer but would need to be restored to return to normal operating conditions. Vital and Necessary services fall between these two. Classifying skills and services into these categories helps organizations prioritize their operations and workforce accordingly.

Cross training is another effective measure that water services can and are employing. Cross training staff on essential skills allows you to distribute those skills throughout the organization. In turn, this helps to alleviate reductions in workforce should they occur. Essentially, everyone in the organization can help pick up the slack if some people need to stay at home.

What key information should water services communicate to the public?

Haller: The public should be educated on three key pieces of information:

  1. Drinking water is safe and water operations are running as intended to continue to supply that water. Water supply is not at risk.
  2. Sewer systems cannot handle products such as paper towels, hygiene products or any wipes (even if they are labeled as flushable). Please do not flush such products down the toilet. These lead to major clogs that are a nuisance during regular times, but dangerous in the context of COVID-19, both for water staff and the public.
  3. Once we get into the recovery phase, people will be moving into buildings that have been essentially unoccupied for weeks or months. Small buildings will need to run their taps for a sufficient period of time to ensure that any stagnant water is flushed through, there could also be concerns with hot water tanks. Larger buildings will need to address any holding tanks to ensure that water is still safe.

What are some of the measures that wastewater services are taking to track COVID-19?

Haller: Previous work has been able to track the use of drugs like cocaine or marijuana to support the work of public health agencies. This same methodology is being considered to track COVID-19 in communities and this information can then be used to inform a response strategy. GIS tools can help to map wastewater flows and keep track of the presence of COVID-19 in such flows, perhaps identifying more vulnerable communities or even neighbourhoods.  

Where can readers find further guidance for the COVID-19 pandemic from the CWWA?

Haller: We encourage readers to visit our website and read our Pandemic Action Plan.

Explore COVID-19 resources at To strengthen business continuity, Esri is providing Coronavirus Business Continuity Solutions at no cost. Contact your Esri Canada account manager if you have an ArcGIS account. For new users, please request assistance through the Esri Disaster Response Program.