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The latest on COVID-19 in Arizona.

Coronavirus Outbreak Tests Resilience Of Western Water Workforce

Luke Runyon
Some western water agencies have asked their employees to work on-site to ensure operations continue during the outbreak, but the majority are taking less drastic measures to control the spread within their workforces.

Water agencies throughout the West are changing their operations during the coronavirus outbreak to make sure cities and farms don’t run dry.



Their responses range from extreme measures to modest adjustments to ensure their most critical workers don’t succumb to the virus.


In San Diego, leadership at the Carlsbad desalination plant asked staff to volunteer for a 21-day isolated stay at the facility. A second set of workers are self-isolating at home to arrive on site for their stay at the treatment plant should the outbreak extend beyond the initial 21-day period.


Many others aren’t taking as drastic a step as asking employees to live at work. The water agency for millions in southern California, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, is scaling back on-site staff and increasing telework capabilities for a portion of its workforce.


In Colorado, two Front Range water providers aren’t to the point of asking workers to house on-site at pumping, treatment or dam sites.


“For now, the answer is no, we are not housing our pump plant operators on site in Grand County,” said Jeff Stahla, spokesperson for Northern Water, which serves a broad sweep of northern Colorado’s municipal and agricultural water needs. “We have changed protocols during shift changes to ensure operators maintain social distancing and control room sanitization, however.”


As of now Northern’s operations have continued without interruption, and the agency is preparing for a spring snowmelt runoff likely to ramp up in the next few weeks, Stahla said.


Some water treatment facilities ran with minimal contact among workers even before the threat of coronavirus, said Todd Hartman, a spokesman for Denver Water.


“Water treatment plants readily operate with people spread apart in different sections of the facilities,” Hartman said. “Social distance is also easy to achieve at our dams and reservoirs.”


Some of Denver Water’s critical infrastructure already house year-round caretakers to keep an eye on remote dam operations, Hartman added. That’s also true of thecity of Colorado Springs’ Grizzly Reservoir in the mountains outside Aspen.


In Arizona, operators at the Central Arizona Project have been shuffled around to avoid exposure to the virus. At the project’s Phoenix headquarters workers have been pulled out of their sometimes cramped control room into adjacent rooms to oversee the operation of the 330 mile canal that hauls water from the Colorado River to the Phoenix and Tucson metro areas.


“The actions we are taking to protect the health of our water operators are aimed at creating isolated bubbles for this small, yet highly critical, team,” said Central Arizona Project spokesperson Crystal Thompson.


The control room’s HVAC system has also been altered to limit the chance of spreading the virus through the building, Thompson said.


The country’s most expansive operator of dams and reservoirs, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, has also stopped short of housing critical staff on-site during the outbreak. The agency oversees some of the tallest dams in the U.S., including the Hoover and Glen Canyon dams along the Colorado River.

Reclamation has “taken measures to maximize telework flexibility, implement staggered work schedules and use social distancing and other mitigations where appropriate,” said agency spokesman Marlon Duke. The agency didn’t say what conditions would warrant further actions, including the possibility of housing workers at dams or other critical infrastructure.

As KUNC’s reporter covering the Colorado River Basin, I dig into stories that show how water issues can both unite and divide communities throughout the Western U.S. I produce feature stories for KUNC and a network of public media stations in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, California and Nevada.
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