COVID-19: Safe water systems crucial during outbreak

David Huff, a city of Dayton water treatment plant operator, washes a filter while also practicing social distancing at the city’s Miami Water Treatment Plant on March 3. City water treatment employees continue to ensure customers get clean drinking water while also protecting themselves and co-workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.| CONTRIBUTED
David Huff, a city of Dayton water treatment plant operator, washes a filter while also practicing social distancing at the city’s Miami Water Treatment Plant on March 3. City water treatment employees continue to ensure customers get clean drinking water while also protecting themselves and co-workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.| CONTRIBUTED

Local water systems are working to make sure that as so much of the rest of people’s lives are interrupted by the coronavirus quarantines, the source of safe water for the region’s homes remain stable.

The city of Dayton — which supplies drinking water for much of Montgomery County — has launched a campaign in an effort to ease residents’ concerns about the quantity and quality of the region’s drinking water.

The COVID-19 outbreak has also led local water systems to take steps from deep-cleaning offices, staggering shifts of workers, and banning public visitors from the grounds — all to prevent an outbreak of the disease from affecting their staffs.

The steps are part of pandemic emergency plans that local water systems put into effect immediately after the COVID-19 pandemic was declared as a state of emergency both locally and nationally. The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency requires all public water systems to have emergency plans.

“With everything else going on, the last thing you need to worry about is your drinking water,” said Joe Bates, the Water Treatment Supervisor for the city of Xenia water system. “Tap water is safe. Drink tap water and save the bottled water for a true emergency or when you are mobile.”

MORE: CORONARIVUS: Complete coverage from the Dayton Daily News

The Dayton Daily News Path Forward project digs into solutions to the biggest issues facing our community, including the safety and sustainability of our drinking water. For this story, the newspaper examined what the cities of Dayton and Xenia, and Montgomery County are doing to ensure customers continue getting clean drinking water during the COVID-19 pandemic. We’ll also look at steps they’ve taken to ensure there are no disruptions during the lockdown order.

Can COVID-19 infect drinking water?

Currently there is no evidence COVID-19 is in drinking water or capable of surviving the treatment processes that water systems use. However, previous strains of the coronavirus — there are seven — have been known to survive and live in wastewater — the water that is flushed or drained from homes and businesses into the local sewer systems. So the city of Dayton has stopped all non-emergency sanitary sewer work in the field, and ensured that employees have proper protective equipment. The wastewater and water departments are separate.

“We’re going to protect the employees, so we’re only going to do emergency work,” Dayton Water Director Michael Powell said. “So any sort of preventive work and those sorts of things where we regularly clean sewers every so many months to keep them on a nice cycle, at this point in time is on hold.”

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Dayton and Xenia water system operators say both facilities have robust treatment systems capable of killing viruses and other pathogens in drinking water. Dayton is one of the few municipalities in the state that has its own laboratories to test the water. Just before the pandemic, the city purchased additional equipment intended to help increase the quality of the water, Powell said.

The people who operate the water treatment plants are specially trained, so the emergency plans took that into consideration in case any of them are infected or experience other emergencies.

Dayton and other municipalities also implemented COVID-19-specific guidelines from the Ohio EPA.

“Properly treated drinking water is crucial for individuals to have during this point in time, because we have to have something to wash our hands with,” Powell said. “So without (water) things could be worse. We want to make sure, and the EPA wants to make sure that the (drinking water) operations are able to be smooth.”

How safe is the drinking water

Montgomery County, which purchases its water from Dayton, and Xenia also implemented their pandemic emergency plans, officials said.

Almost immediately after Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine issued a “stay-at-home” order in March as a way of slowing the spread of the COVID-19, many people rushed to grocery stories to stock up on items such as food, meat and toilet paper. In some cases, people bought cases of bottled water. It’s not clear if they were concerned about the COVID-19 causing water shortages. But the stockpiling was similar to one that occurred briefly several years ago when low levels of PFAS chemicals were first found in local drinking water.

Related: Dayton Drinking Water Safety: How healthy is the local aquifer

The contaminants in sufficient quantities can cause cancer, birth defects and other health issues. So Dayton took steps immediately after the chemicals were discovered to ensure the water is safe to drink, and the city continues to meet the Ohio EPA’s standards for the chemicals, the agency has said.

Shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic started, Dayton began working on a marketing campaign to promote the water’s safety. They’ve created billboards that went up around the city last week, and messages will be posted on social media.

The billboards read, “Yes, your water is safe,” and it has pictures of a man drinking a glass of water, a young boy brushing his teeth and a baby getting his hands washed.

“People can rest assure that the water that is coming out of their taps is safe,” Powell said. “They can rely on it, they can drink it, use it for everything that they need to. They don’t have to worry about trying to conserve it, use it as you normally would. If you want to store it for whatever purposes you can, but we’ve got millions of gallons worth of it in storage for you.”

Plenty of clean drinking water

Each of Dayton’s two water treatment plants is capable of generating 96 million gallons of water per day. Even if one plant were to go off line, the other is capable of producing twice the amount of water customers use in an average day, Powell said. Operating one plant at a time is inefficient and costly, so they avoid doing it unless there’s an emergency or for maintenance purposes, he said.

“So what we have developed is the two plants working in conjunction with each other to supply the daily demand at a lower level for each plant, but allows us to operate at peak efficiency to keep the cost low,” he said.

Related: PFAS in drinking water: Ohio to test for forever chemicals

In addition to the plants, Dayton has 88 million gallons of water in reserve in case both plants were to go out of commission, Powell said.

Montgomery County has 25 million gallons in storage.

Xenia’s water plant produces an average of 3 million gallons of water a day, although the plant is designed to treat 8 million gallons per day, Bates said. In addition, the city has enough water in storage to service its customers for about two days in case the plant becomes inoperable, he said. The city has 11,000 service connections, including Central State University.

Businesses, many of which are closed because of the pandemic, tend to use the most amount of water. But Dayton and Xenia water officials say they don’t expect to lose any revenue during this time because residential customers on lockdown orders are using more water than usual to make up the difference, Bates said.

Social distancing

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ohio EPA has given municipalities guidelines, as the "operation of public water systems to ensure that Ohioans are provided safe drinking water is a critical public health-related responsibility," spokeswoman Dina Pierce said. The agency has also been actively working with and reaching out to public water systems through phone calls, email updates and webinars. In addition, they created a website to keep the public water systems informed of requirements, guidance and resources available.

The website has information about operations, operators, public systems, laboratories, consumers, monitoring and engineering.

“We have very experienced public water system operators across the state that are working diligently to ensure that Ohioans are provided with safe drinking water,” Pierce said.

Related: Rep. Turner’s water quality panel hires consultant to study Dayton-area water

One of the things that the EPA stresses is that the public water systems practice social distancing among employees to ensure the water treatment plants continue to operate. The Dayton water department made arrangements and adjusted employees’ schedules, Powell said.

Rooms where multiple staffers work in have been modified to separate employees’ work areas. The city also brought in a special fogging equipment — similar to what airlines use — to disinfect the plants daily. The public is no longer allowed in any of the facilities, as the city moved to isolate the employees from outsiders even before the governor issued the “stay-at-home” order, Powell said.

Employees are asked to check their temperatures regularly while at home, and they’re checked again before being admitted into the facilities to start their work day.

“We try to do as much as possible to make sure that the employees stay safe, and the plant environments themselves stay safe,” Powell said.

Key leaders such as Powell and his deputy director, Aaron Zonin, rotate working remotely to lessen the chances of both getting sick at the same time.

Special skilled employees

The water treatment plants, which runs 24 hours a day, requires employees with specific skills, so the staff is cross-trained in case there’s an emergency and multiple staffers are unable to work. Staffers who previously worked at the plant but are now working in other city departments will also be called in if necessary, Powell said.

Montgomery County, which is the region’s Emergency Management Agency, activated its plan several weeks ago. They’ve also taken steps to ensure they continue providing clean water to their 80,000 customers, said Spokeswoman Megan O’Leary. The county increased disinfection protocols, closed in-person payment areas and promoted the use of online or over-the-phone customer service and payment options.

Related: Montgomery County saw record water main breaks. How it will fix its aging systems

They’ve also stopped shutting off water and sewer service for non-payment until further notice, O’Leary said.

In addition, Montgomery County implemented a new leave policy, allowing employees to take additional time off to help them deal with the impact of COVID-19 on their personal and professional lives. Although most employees continued to work to maintain the water plants, they practice social distances and take other precautions to avoid getting infected.

“Throughout this pandemic, Montgomery County will continue to serve our residents and we anticipate no impact to water and sewer service,” said Interim Environmental Services Director Matt Hilliard. “We are thankful for our hard-working employees, who are still working every day to keep our operations running smoothly.”

The city of Xenia has taken similar measures to ensure its water treatment plant operators remain healthy, said Bates, the water treatment supervisor. The city provides the employees with disinfectants and other personal protective equipment, he said. They deep clean city buildings and vehicles, and encourage employees not to share cars, he said.

“These professional plant operators are essential, highly trained and not easily replaced, so we are taking special precautions to keep them healthy and safe,” Bates said, noting that the operators have a combined 110 years of experience in the water quality field. “As a supervisor, my biggest concern is the health of our operators, these plants do not run themselves and it takes many years to understand the ins and outs of these treatment plants.”

About the Path Forward

Our team of investigative reporters digs into what you identified as pressing issues facing our community. The Path Forward project seeks solutions to these problems by investigating the safety and sustainability of our drinking water. Follow our work at DaytonDailyNews.com/PathForward.