Coronavairus Impact on Public Water Systems

GDHM’s Utility Group is closely tracking how the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has impacted public water systems. Clean drinking water is vital to the health and well-being of Texas residents at all times. The ability of public water systems to continue to maintain treatment facilities, while some industries they rely on (like chemical suppliers) have suspended operations or are understaffed due to COVID-19, is key to ensuring that Texas drinking water remains drinkable.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), one of the agencies with jurisdiction over public water systems, expects the public drinking water supply will be stable during the COVID-19 pandemic so long as water systems follow state and federal disinfection regulations. State and federal regulations have established treatment requirements for public water systems that prevent waterborne pathogens such as viruses from contaminating drinking water. According to the TCEQ, COVID-19 is a type of virus that is particularly susceptible to disinfection and standard treatment processes.

Recently, the TCEQ has emphasized the importance of maintaining adequate disinfectant treatment in accordance with the TCEQ’s rules (minimum 0.2 mg/L free chlorine or 0.5 mg/L chloramine measured as total chlorine) to ensure continued health protection of drinking water. This may be a challenge when disinfectant chemicals are in high demand across the country. It is critical that public water systems contact their disinfectant chemical suppliers to verify that they can continue to make deliveries during COVID-19. If there is a question regarding chemical supply, it is recommended that the public water system obtain a backup supplier or some alternative means of ensuring an adequate supply to meet the appropriate standards. Also, the TCEQ has offered to assist public water systems with creating alternative chemical mixes that meet the regulatory standards. For more drinking water-related COVID-19 resources, visit the TCEQ information page.

In addition to issuing guidance on drinking water quality, the State is taking measures to protect residential water service customers from service disconnection and late fees during the COVID-19 emergency. To ensure that customers facing financial hardships can maintain water, sewer, and electric service, the Public Utility Commission of Texas (PUC) ordered utilities to refrain from charging late fees or disconnecting customers for non-payment during this emergency. For more information on customer protections, visit the PUC.

Some of these issues can be addressed by public water systems with an emergency action plan. During the COVID-19 pandemic, public water systems may be faced with decisions regarding alternative processes and procedures for disinfection, disconnections and billing, or other operations necessary to provide water service. An emergency action plan can cover when and how emergency approvals by the board or governing body of the public water system will be conducted to protect public health. For example, a system subject to the quorum requirements under the Texas Open Meetings Act (TOMA) should have a designee to make decisions in emergency situations when it is not possible for a quorum of the board to conduct an emergency meeting. Who will be designated to authorize expenses for a new chemical disinfectant, or seek emergency approval from the TCEQ for an interconnection for additional water supply? Is it the General Manager, the President in conjunction with the General Manager, or the President and General Manager after consultation with the water system attorney? In following an emergency action plan, any of these delegated decisions should later be ratified or approved by the board or governing body when it is able to meet pursuant to the public water systems rules and the TOMA, if applicable.

Graves Dougherty regularly counsels public water systems such as investor owned utilities, water districts, and water supply corporations on the rules and regulations for providing Texans with water across the State. If you have a question regarding public water systems, drinking water quality standards, or any customer issues, contact Natasha Martin who has extensive experience with public water systems and is here to help.