On March 27, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Andrew Wheeler sent a letter to Governors in all 50 states, territories and Washington, D.C. urging them to ensure that drinking water and wastewater employees are considered essential workers by state authorities when enacting restrictions such as shelter in place orders to curb the spread of COVID-19. Supporting water utilities as they work to provide clean water for drinking and handwashing is essential during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Ensuring that all Americans have clean and safe water is a high priority for the agency and I want to thank the water sector for their courageous efforts at a time when workforces are being challenged and stretched,” said Administrator Andrew Wheeler. “Having fully operational drinking water and wastewater services is critical to containing COVID-19 and protecting Americans from other public health risks. Our nation’s water and wastewater employees are everyday heroes who are on the frontline of protecting human health and the environment every single day.”
Over the past two days, Administrator Wheeler has held teleconferences with water sector stakeholders, including small and rural operators, to acknowledge the importance of their work and identify ways that EPA and its partners can support the sector during the COVID-19 pandemic. As part of these meetings, the Administrator discussed the importance of the steps he outlined in his letter to Governors to ensure that state and local communities consider the water workforce as essential in the process of granting access and credentials to restricted areas in order to sustain critical water and wastewater services. They also discussed the importance of supply chain businesses, including chemical manufacturers and distributors. These businesses support the daily operations of the nation’s water and wastewater facilities and should also be designated as essential.
“The Association of State Drinking Water Administrators appreciates EPA recognizing the critical role of states and water system play in ensuring the delivery of safe drinking water to the public,” said ASDWA Executive Director Alan Roberson. “Continuing the ongoing partnership between EPA, states, water systems and the public is as important as ever during these challenging times.”
“Small community water and wastewater systems are the lifeblood of rural and tribal communities across the country. With more than 97 percent of public water systems and 72 percent of public wastewater systems serving communities of 10,000 people or fewer, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic will reverberate in rural and tribal communities for years to come,” said CEO of the Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP) Nathan Ohle. “We are grateful to be able to bring the voice of small communities to discussions like this with EPA, and greatly appreciate the opportunity to ensure that small system issues are raised and addressed.”
“National and State Rural Water Associations have implemented emergency protocols to bring the full range of capabilities and resources to assist small systems for the duration of the pandemic,” said Deputy CEO, National Rural Water Association Matthew Holmes. “Literally hundreds of certified operators have volunteered to assist their neighboring systems in case of workforce shortages. NRWA acknowledges that any emergency affecting critical water and wastewater utilities places heightened stresses on the professionals responsible for the public’s safety. My expectation is that these individuals will rise to meet the challenges facing our Nation, and they all deserve increased recognition and gratitude for the service they provide each and every day.”
“Water professionals are doing heroic work to keep water flowing and that assure that citizens stay hydrated, wash their hands and prevent the spread of COVID-19,” said American Water Works Association CEO David LaFrance. “Our preliminary research shows that nearly half of water utilities either already have plans to assure essential workers can live on-site at their jobs or are considering developing those plans. Water workers are literally saving lives, and we owe them our gratitude and support.”
EPA has also posted new information and resources that water stakeholders-including states, municipalities, utilities and their workforce-can use to support operations during the pandemic. For example, on the website, the agency is summarizing resources that can support utilities, including by helping maintain adequate staffing and laboratory capacity. Included in the materials is an incident action checklist to support water utilities as they prepare for, respond to, and recover from a pandemic. While most water systems already have continuity plans in place as part of best-management practices, EPA recommends that states work with their utilities to review these plans and to keep up with the latest announcements on COVID-19.
Additionally, EPA supports states and cities that are taking proactive measures to ensure continued access to clean water during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many drinking water systems are discontinuing service cut-offs, restoring service to customers whose service was previously cut-off, and refraining from imposing penalties for nonpayment. EPA recommends widespread adoption of these practices, which provide critical support for public health.
For the latest information from EPA about COVID-19 and water, see: www.epa.gov/coronavirus.