Safe and accessible drinking water. Properly treated wastewater. Reliable electricity that keeps the lights on. Ports and airports to move goods through the country and overseas safely. Highways, bridges, and public transportation to get people to the grocery, pharmacy, or doctor. These systems are part of the critical infrastructure that is imperative during the response to COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic.
Last week, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security released guidance outlining essential infrastructure workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. That guidance includes those employed at drinking water, wastewater, dams, energy, chemical, and transportation infrastructure sectors, among others. Drinking water and wastewater professionals are at the front lines of protecting the nation’s public health during this pandemic, especially as World Health Organization guidance urges the frequent washing of hands.
Coming off of recognizing World Water Day – a day that highlights the importance of freshwater – it is crucial we recognize that drinking water and sanitation services play a critical role in mitigating the spread of the coronavirus.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and major water associations have reassured the public that tap water is safe to drink during this time, and although COVID-19 has not been detected in drinking water supplies or wastewater, guidance has been issued to help the sector prepare for the possibility.
To ensure that the public has access to safe and reliable water during this pandemic, many municipalities around the country have restarted water service to residents who have fallen behind in payments, and others have passed measures to suspend water shut-offs. American Water, the largest private water utility company, has pledged to end all shut-offs, and House Energy & Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone (D-NJ) and Transportation & Infrastructure Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-OR) called on water utilities to put a moratorium on water shut-offs.
Many utility workers, such as those at the Claude “Bud” Lewis Carlsbad Desalination Plant in Carlsbad, California, which delivers nearly 50 million gallons of fresh water per day to about 400,000 people, are taking remarkable steps and making personal sacrifices to ensure continued production of safe water supply for the public. The utility has assembled a team of employees to shelter in place at the plant for at least 21 days to ensure continued production of water supply and to provide oversight of the facility.
ASCE applauds the efforts that water utilities are taking to protect the public from the insecurity of not having access to clean and reliable water. As a result of water shut-off suspensions and the restoration of service, however, water utilities expect to see billions of dollars of lost revenue: unpaid bills could skyrocket as more households now face financial hardship. Many utilities may not be able to recoup unpaid bills, which will then be passed on later as higher rates to customers. Utilities also face a large loss in revenue from a decrease in industrial and business water usage. Furthermore, wastewater treatment facilities around the nation are reporting surges in backed-up sewer lines and overflowing toilets as people are improperly disposing of disinfectant wipes, paper towels, and other used paper products into the toilet.
Federal assistance is needed to assist utilities in addressing this loss of revenue, and ASCE was proud to sign onto a coalition letter that asks Congress to include the following measures in the next coronavirus economic stimulus package:
- Federal assistance to cover costs associated with moratoriums on water service disconnections, or reconnections of delinquent accounts, that water systems have implemented in response to the pandemic;
- Grant or low interest loan funding to help support utility operations at a time when revenues are dropping dramatically; and
- Inclusion of strong funding through established water infrastructure investment programs like the SRFs, WIFIA, USDA Rural Development, and other water infrastructure grant programs to help fuel local economic activity while simultaneously strengthening America’s infrastructure.
ASCE also signed onto a coalition letter requesting tax credit equity between private companies and public employers in H.R. 6201, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. Currently, the bill allows for private sector employers to receive a tax credit to offset the costs of providing paid sick leave to employees, but public sector employers, including public drinking water and wastewater utilities, are ineligible for the same tax credit. We urge Congress to fix this provision to ensure that public employers, including public drinking water and wastewater utilities, can receive this same tax credit as private companies.
As ASCE Executive Director Tom Smith noted last week, “We were pleased to see the Department of Homeland Security deem so many of these infrastructure sectors as critical services…With Americans enduring an increasing economic burden due to the COVID-19 pandemic, investing in our infrastructure now is one way to lessen the economic burden on Americans in the long-term. These investments will help both large and small businesses and provide opportunities for Americans to get back to work. Additionally, investing in our infrastructure systems will help to keep the economy moving – and recover quickly from the economic shock associated with COVID-19.”
ASCE is working hard to ensure the civil engineering profession is championed and safeguarded during this difficult time. In addition to our efforts to provide federal assistance to drinking water and wastewater infrastructure systems and utilities, we have also urged Congress to include relief for transit agencies and airports.