Water districts working together
Local water districts say they are preparing for anything as the pandemic continues to affect virtually all aspects of local life. Clay Lambert / Review

The two water districts that cover the Coastside are taking steps to continue essential work and keep water safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. They are also reevaluating their budgets.

Both Coastside County Water District and Montara Water and Sanitary District officials say the water treatment process already in place uses chlorine to eliminate viruses and no staff come in contact with the water.

MWSD General Manager Clemens Heldmaier said he’s been working to reassure the public that water from both systems is safe to drink and to use.

While the water is safe, the workers at the treatment plants are at risk. In preparation for the now-declared pandemic, CCWD came up with a plan to maintain social distancing while continuing essential functions. The water agencies have closed their offices to the public and are asking staff to wear masks and work individually in the field and at the office. To better allocate resources, they have postponed all nonessential projects.

Some jurisdictions, such as in San Diego County, have asked their teams to self-quarantine at the sites as a precaution. But MWSD and CCWD say they can keep the systems running safely without requiring treatment operators to live at work. Each has a staffing contingency plan in place should any employee get sick with the virus.

“Our field staff have their own trucks and they are given assignments that allow them to work individually,” CCWD General Manager Mary Rogren said.

If the districts were to need of additional staff, the California Water/Wastewater Agency Response Network, a state program, allows water districts to borrow workers from other agencies. Neither agency anticipates laying off any employees due to COVID-19.

“... They are essential personnel and first responders,” Heldmaier said. “They are there for the community. Our workers are very dedicated.”

Both CCWD and MWSD have policies preventing water shut-offs due to an inability to pay. During the state of emergency, Heldmaier said MWSD is also postponing late fees.

“We do not shut off for nonpayment ever,” Heldmaier said. “We have to be very kind and flexible with folks.”

As essential work continues and water districts are more lenient with customers, they still have to pay the bills and improve critical infrastructure.

An assessment from the American Water Works Association shows that on a national level, drinking water utilities are projected to lose $13.9 billion. This is a result of the utilities eliminating shutoffs for nonpayment while unemployment rates skyrocket and agencies bring in fewer new customers.

On the Coastside, the water districts say they will make it through the financial downturn related to the pandemic, but are reevaluating as they prepare next year’s budgets.

“My concern is if we have bad debt because of people not paying their bills,” Rogren said.

Both districts have serious and needed infrastructure updates. Heldmaier said MWSD’s operations are already slimmed down, and scheduled infrastructure updates, already deferred by a year, can’t wait any longer. That means the scheduled rate increases, which will appear on property taxes in December, will continue as planned. He said the rate increase notices, sent out just before the shelter-in-place order went into effect, came at the worst possible time.

“The need for fixing stuff that breaks, unfortunately, isn't going away,” Heldmaier said. “And what isn’t going away either is the regulatory requirements.”

Unlike MWSD, CCWD decided to delay a discussion about rate increases until this summer.

“It’s key for the community we are paying attention to our infrastructure and not pushing the can down the road,” Rogren said.

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