The COVID-19 health emergency has prompted “panic buying” of bottled water that has emptied store shelves and sown confusion over water safety. We talked to Dave Eggerton—executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA) and a member of the PPIC Water Policy Center advisory council—about the state’s municipal water supply in light of the ongoing pandemic. ACWA is a statewide association whose 450 local public water agency members are responsible for about 90% of the water delivered in California.
PPIC: Is the state’s water supply safe?
DAVE EGGERTON: The virus is not a danger to our public water supplies, and buying bottled water in response to it is unnecessary. This has been confirmed by the US Environmental Protection Agency, the Centers for Disease Control, and many local water suppliers. Our treatment plants use a disinfectant process that destroys this virus, along with other pathogens that threaten public health. After the water is treated, chlorine is added during the delivery process as an added precaution.
Our public water systems are comprehensively regulated under state and federal law—including the removal of pathogens. The men and women who operate these plants are highly trained to manage crisis situations like this. These people are real heroes in the work they do, and we’re incredibly proud of them, and of the fact that our water supply remains safe.
In addition to providing this essential service, one of the other important things our water agencies do is continuously provide timely, accurate information to the public. That’s a major focus right now, and it’s key to reducing confusion during a crisis. If you have any questions about water safety, contact your local provider; they stand ready to help.
PPIC: Water systems are critical infrastructure and can’t shut down. What steps will the sector need to take to address this risk?
DE: Like the rest of society, we’re faced with the challenge of protecting our employees from getting sick. Public water systems are in many ways automated, which allows us to operate facilities more or less remotely. But you need essential workers on site to monitor conditions at treatment plants and distribution systems and address issues as they arise. These people must be able to get to work sites. So we have to protect them so they can do their jobs.
That said, the water sector is well prepared for emergencies, so you can be sure these supplies will be delivered to people’s homes. For example, if you look back at some of the recent catastrophic fires we’ve experienced, water workers were at frontlines to protect communities’ supplies. They have an incredible commitment to their work. Responding to emergencies is something our agencies do on a regular basis. We have emergency response plans, and the men and women who operate these systems are trained to handle crisis conditions. During Santa Rosa’s huge fire, for example, operators of a water treatment plant kept it functioning so water could continue flowing to hydrants, even when they were at risk of the rapidly approaching flames.
In addition, our agencies are working together to help each other—we have mutual aid agreements to share supplies and labor as needed. And because our drinking water systems are regulated under state law, the state Division of Drinking Water has continuous involvement with our public agencies. So we have longstanding relationships and paths of communication that enable us to be aware and responsive to new challenges. And on the local side, we have strong, ongoing relationships with county response emergency operation centers, and we’ve planned emergency scenarios with them. That level of communication and trust really helps in times like these.