Jan 31, 2022

Q&A: AWWA COVID Water Sector Impact Survey 5 (Oct 2021)

This article originally appeared in the Jan/Feb 2022 issue of WQP as "COVID-19 Impact on the Water Industry"

Covid-19, Industry impact survey

In early March 2020, the American Water Work Association (AWWA) launched a series of continuous surveys to monitor the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on utility and water sector service providers under its membership. The association conducted four surveys between March 10 and June 15, 2020. The fifth survey, unpacked here, was launched in October 2021 to monitor how responses were evolving. WQP Managing Editor Lauren Del Ciello asked AWWA Director of Communications Greg Kail about the latest survey.

AWWA COVID Water Sector Impact Survey 5 (Oct 2021) Results Over Time

Lauren Del Ciello: How have results changed over time throughout the pandemic?

Greg Kail: Early in the pandemic there was a focus on the continuation of essential services. For example, lots of planning to deal with potential widespread absenteeism. We also saw a lot of utilities (90% or more) enact new policies to help their customers, for example, suspending water shutoffs. There were a lot of struggles to get personal protective equipment (PPE). We saw revenue impacts starting to hit some utilities in April 2020 as water use dropped, and that continued to increase slightly into our June 2020 survey. By June 2020, we started to see more utilities beginning to re-open offices and relax some policies to mitigate the spread of COVID that were put in place early in the pandemic.

By October 2021, the concerns had shifted quite a bit. The new issues were the ability to hire and retain staff and supply chain concerns related to infrastructure components, vehicles, electronics and chemicals. Interestingly, we asked about chemicals in the spring of 2020 and only 4% reported issues with chemical supply chains, but in October 2021, that number jumped to 45%. Other concerns had waned. We found more utilities had reopened offices and relaxed policies like travel restrictions. Utilities reporting financial impacts had dropped somewhat and supply chain issues for PPE were not much of a problem anymore.

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Del Ciello: Based on the most recent survey results, how are smaller utilities feeling the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic differently than larger utilities? What about non-utilities, like engineering firms and OEMs?

Kail: For utilities, it appears that larger utilities are both more likely to report having impacts from the pandemic and more likely to put policies in place to help control spread. For example, working from home. On the non-utility side, we didn’t get a lot of data on that point. What we did see is that non-utility organizations seemed more likely to continue work-from-home policies longer than utilities. They also faced financial impacts, but those reporting these dropped in our October 2021 survey from those in the spring of 2020. They are also now experiencing supply chain issues and difficulty hiring.

Staff Shortages & Supply Chain

Del Ciello: Staff shortages and supply chain seem to be two of the most key factors highlighted. Based on the data, how are staff shortages and supply chain playing out across the market?

Kail: We can’t answer this question using the survey data, but it’s fair to say that supply chain issues, including chemical/commodities availability, have become very pronounced and are stressing utility budgets with significant cost increases and inconsistent delivery allocation. The workforce issue is impacting entities in all sectors, but for our purposes the need for personnel with specialized certifications and licenses makes it even more challenging. This is not limited to utility staff, but also the staff that support the sector.

Del Ciello: How is AWWA harnessing this data?

Kail: Data gathered through initial surveys informed several COVID-related resources that AWWA developed. We also gathered needs through weekly Water/Wastewater Agency Network (WARN) meetings, which led to Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) providing the water sector with three million cloth masks that were distributed via WARNs, AWWA Sections, Rural Community Assistance Program (RCAP) and Rural Water. The bi-weekly WARN calls have also revealed various supply chain issues over the past 18 months, which informed the questions in the most recent survey. We are in the process of working with the chemical sector, the Department of Homeland Security, and EPA on options for greater collaboration and actions that might mitigate issues that impact utility continuity of service.

Predictions & Hopes for 2022

Del Ciello: As we move into a new year, any predictions or hopes for 2022?

Kail: Supply chain issues will persist, likely into 2023, especially with additional demand signal coming from the infusion of money being released through the recent infrastructure bill. The water sector is already experiencing significant increases in chemical costs, which will strain utility budgets that were fixed on more stable prices. Inflationary conditions will impact utility operations due to increase cost of fuel, power and commodities. Our hope is that we’ll emerge from this pandemic soon, with great resilience, and with a better societal appreciation of the essential nature of uninterrupted water service, in normal times and emergencies.

About the author

Greg Kail is director of communications for the American Water Works Association (AWWA). Kail can be reached at gkail@awwa.org.

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