Advice on managing impacts of COVID-19 for local water utilities in regional NSW

Posted by: Brendan Guiney on 23/03/2020

UPDATE (6 May 2020): Safe Work Australia have provided updated information on physical distancing at work, available here.

The spread of COVID-19 in NSW communities could seriously disrupt water utility operations and the delivery of water and sewerage services. Councils and county councils need to prepare for the impact of having staff and external support unavailable due to illness or mandatory isolation, as well as potential supply chain interruptions. Early planning will be key to maintaining essential water and sewerage services.

NSW Health, DPIE Water and Office of Local Government have worked together to prepare Information for water utilities on COVID 19 impacts. The document includes guidance on how to review business continuity plans, prepare for operational disruption, and respond to increases in risk. 

In addition to the strategic advice provided by the NSW Government, there are practical measures a local water utility can consider to reduce the risk to their operations:

  • Split your operational group into a number of teams by location. Discourage physical interaction between teams and coordinators. Consider renting additional vehicles to provide further segregation of staff.
  • Stagger start and finish times for operators if separation by location is impractical
  • Restrict movement of operators to between home and the work site
  • Establish electronic work order practices and mobile GIS solutions to limit operator visits to office/depot
  • Establish a duress alarm system ('man down' alarm) through smartphone apps or devices for staff working alone
  • Water managers and engineers work from home to ensure continuity of management, especially knowledge of the water and sewerage systems
  • Establish remote SCADA access for operators via mobile devices. There are modules available on the market that can be quickly connected to your SCADA to enable immediate remote access
  • Use videoconferencing tools on smartphones to visually demonstrate issues in the field
  • Institute group messaging apps such as WhatsApp on smartphones to facilitate instant communication with various teams and manage issues
  • Where physical meetings are unavoidable for your operations, such as toolbox meeting, meet outdoor with social distancing
  • Postpone any non-essential work

The Water Directorate especially encourages putting cross-Council arrangements in place for resource sharing to mitigate the potential impact of not having enough staff available. Familiarisation and induction of operators potentially working across Council borders is an important consideration and should be considered in consultation with NSW Health prior to an operator exchange occurring. If you do not have a Business Continuity Plan, we have a template available in our Business Continuity Management Guidelines 2012 available for online purchase or available free of charge to our member utilities in our Members Area. We also have examples of Business Continuity Plans and Emergency Pandemic Sub Plans available upon request by emailing us.

Another excellent resource that has been shared with us is the COVID-19 Compendium for Water and Wastewater Utilities, assembled by Moonshot Missions, an urban water consultancy based in the United States. The compendium summarises the best ideas contributed by US water utilities.

Availability of chemicals and other essential requirements for the water sector

The National COVID-19 Coordination Commission has been approached by the Water Services Association of Australia about chemicals and other essential requirements for the Australian water sector. With regard to chemical supply, there is no immediate shortage in Australia so far. Chemical suppliers are implementing contingency and pandemic plans to ensure continuity of supplies. Several local suppliers have informed water utilities that most raw materials are available in Australia and therefore production will not be affected. However, some risk remains where chemicals are sourced from outside Australia. This risk from overseas supply would need to be managed on a utility by utility basis depending on what specific chemicals they use and where they are sourced.

If you have any difficulties or concerns with being able to maintain normal water or sewerage operations you should contact your local Public Health Unit at NSW Health and Regional Manager at DPIE Water.

NSW Health have also previously issued the following key messages with regard to water utility operations:

Information for water utilities on COVID-19 / coronavirus from NSW Health

Local water utilities may have some questions about the risks from COVID-19 and responses that they can use to manage these risks. Below are some key messages relating to wastewater workers and to the safety of drinking water:

Working around wastewater

Some coronaviruses can potentially survive in the gastrointestinal tract and be spread by the ‘faecal-oral’ route or via inhalation of contaminated wastewater droplets. Most likely the COVID-19 virus will enter some wastewater systems, but it is just one of many pathogens potentially present in wastewater. There are controls already in place to protect people working around wastewater. These are based on keeping workers safe from much more easily transmitted and established faecal-oral pathogens (such as norovirus, hepatitis A virus, Cryptosporidium and Salmonella). Existing, standard approaches for working safely with wastewater still apply and no changes are needed to manage the risk from COVID-19. Exposure to all pathogens in the workplace and in wastewater should be managed by ‘business as usual’ hygiene practices such as using appropriate personal protective equipment and good handwashing.

Water utilities and their contractors should continue to provide safe working environments by following conventional precautions for working with wastewater. This involves providing the appropriate tools, equipment, work methods and procedures, personal protective equipment and sanitation for all workers.

Disinfection of water and wastewater

Disinfection processes for drinking water and wastewater are designed and operated to manage pathogens, such as viruses. Conventional disinfection methods, applied to inactivate the most resistant viruses, will also inactivate the COVID-19 virus. No additional or modified treatment is required beyond the current ‘business as usual’ treatment.

Further assistance

Assistance with local water utility contingency planning can be obtained by contacting Atom Consulting, with a list of their COVID-19 support services available here. Atom Consulting have also developed a simple checklist of issues for water utilities to consider, available here.

Hunter H2O is also available to provide advice on your operations. Capability statement here.

Need to develop some remote monitoring quickly?  You can contact Trimble Water or ask about SAGE Automation's Remote Support Module.

Links for further information


Comments on this blog

There are no comments on this blog yet.

Search the Blog

Send us your comments

  • Comment
1 Coral Avenue (by appointment), Tuncurry New South Wales 2428 | Phone (02) 6555 6249 © All Rights Reserved | Sitemap | Website by PegboardCo