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Covid Strikes a Shadow Over Municipal Water Works

The Coronavirus presents a big new issue for municipal water plants and associated companies.

All over the world, the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic is provoking new and difficult problems for municipalities involved in water treatment. Working for towns, cities, and smaller communities, utilities are tasked with providing safe drinking water, wastewater services, and sanitation for everyone. The Coronavirus pandemic, which was first recognized in late 2019 and has spread globally, is intimately linked to the safety of municipal water treatment plants.

The global growth of the municipal water and wastewater treatment industry is directly linked to the size of the population, impacting urban areas in particular. Plants continuously collect effluent from municipal and industrial sources, and purify wastewater to levels that enable the resultant liquids to be used as potable drinking sources, as well as in residential, commercial, and agricultural operations. Concerns about waterborne disease and public health, however, have been rudely pushed into the spotlight now that Covid-19 is upon us, leading to new worries about the health of large populations caught in the novel Coronavirus hotspots. Yet, there is evidence that water treatment plants can help provide early alerts of the disease’s spread.

Initial efforts at combating the disease illustrate the double-edged sword of attacking the virus with common household disinfectants. Bleach has been extensively used in homes and businesses by people to fight the Coronavirus. While this may seem to be part of a sensible solution for the pandemic, reports from the field show that the over-use of chlorine ends up in water plant lagoons and can cause the death of the “good bacteria” (called a biomass) which breaks down human waste in such systems. This biomass will become ever more important as wastewater analysis becomes a valuable tool in detecting potential Covid-19 hotspots. Wastewater could turn out to be critical in finding a second wave of the disease.

Testing wastewater for coronavirus’ genetic signature — its RNA components — could give communities a faster way to test for the virus than swab tests, which have suffered from capacity and inaccuracy issues and slow turnaround of test results. “Several labs have achieved a proof-of-concept in terms of demonstrating the ability to detect the RNA of the virus in wastewater,” said Peter Grevatt, CEO of the nonprofit Water Research Foundation. Multiple countries are now putting into place systems to detect Covid-19 build-ups in wastewater. The UK is planning to introduce a country-wide system to detect Coronavirus in wastewater, which will serve as an early warning mechanism and reduce expensive testing in large population centers. Finland, Germany, and the Netherlands have already implemented such systems.

In the U.S., there is discussion on how to build a surveillance network and the additional work needed to make it viable. Water utilities from southeastern Virginia to Portland, Oregon are already conducting their own tests. The Water Research Foundation is advancing solutions in the water sector, sending wastewater samples collected by several utilities to participating labs, to have them analyze and compare results, as well as standardize best practices. The foundation hopes it will have completed this process by the end of the summer. Wastewater-based epidemiology is used in many public health efforts worldwide, from the detection of Cholera in countries where that disease is still prevalent, to tracking the use of illicit narcotics at a Southwestern U.S. university campus.

Establishing an early warning system for Covid-19 using wastewater samples in the U.S. will be a massive task, as there are over 50,000 water utilities in the country, with various levels of regional, state, and federal authority above them. This is still logistically easier — and cheaper — than swab or antibody tests for the disease. Tracking wastewater for SARS-CoV-2 elements in human waste can help provide continuous tracking of Covid-19 in two-thirds of the American population at a cost of $40 million to $80 million a week. Pulling together a Covid early warning system that uses wastewater will give authorities a cost-effective mechanism ahead of a possible second wave in the U.S. this Fall. Experts say that wastewater testing can detect the disease in the community at least a week before a general population shows symptoms of the Coronavirus.

This is where existing supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) and next-gen IoT systems connected to cloud applications could form an important link of the chain in any Covid-19 alert system. SCADA allows municipal users to monitor and control a plant’s pumps, motors, sensors and more, through human-machine interface (HMI) software. This will be the point where IoT companies can help utilities develop a sophisticated system to detect the presence of the virus in wastewater lagoons. Delivering an automated solution will require everything from sensor agnostic interfaces to dual-mode (cellular/satellite) connectivity, all of which are required to be linked into cloud software.

FieldIntell, a Network Innovations (NI) company, builds best-in-class IoT solutions purpose-built for the exacting requirements of public sector organizations and municipalities. FieldIntell’s sensor agnostic interfaces provide real-time edge-intelligence of local operating conditions over dual-mode connectivity. Discover how NI IoT monitoring solutions can enable you to effortlessly detect chemical signatures & collect operational metrics in real-time.