How Cadmus helped the U.S. EPA quickly assess the challenges faced by water and wastewater utilities during the COVID-19 pandemic
On August 20, 2021, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released its 2020 COVID-19 Water Sector Summary Report. Cadmus supported the planning, execution, and analysis of results from the survey, which was conducted in 2020 under an emergency information collection request.
EPA’s goal was to quickly assess how water and wastewater utilities were faring during the COVID-19 pandemic and to identify critical areas for sustaining water utility operations in the short term and for future planning. Topics of interest included supply chain concerns involving water treatment chemicals and essential equipment and materials, as well as challenges facing the water sector in terms of workforce issues, finances, sample collection and laboratory analysis, and cybersecurity.
Cadmus has extensive experience designing and conducting surveys of the water sector for EPA, including two periodic nationwide surveys, the Drinking Water Infrastructure Needs Survey and Assessment and the Community Water System Survey. This experience, and Cadmus’ knowledge of utility operations and contacts within the industry, were leveraged to design the sampling plan and the survey instrument and to test and validate the survey instrument.
The survey was administered electronically, using Qualtrics software. It was sent to over 6,000 community water systems, wastewater treatment facilities, and American Indian and Alaska Native Village utilities, divided into multiple strata by size of the population served. Significant resources were devoted to following up individually with survey recipients by phone and email in order to meet the survey’s response targets.
Preparatory work was conducted on an expedited basis in the summer of 2020. Data collection took place between October and December 2020. Preliminary results were available for EPA management to review by February 2021—including some flexible data visualization options developed by Cadmus—and the formal report was developed soon thereafter. Findings included the following:
- 36% of the nation’s water and wastewater utilities encountered shortages or supply chain disruptions of one kind or another in 2020. Shortages of personal protective equipment were particularly notable, especially during the early phase of the pandemic.
- 27% of the nation’s water and wastewater utilities experienced personnel shortages during the pandemic due to missed work (for example, on account of illness, care of family members, daycare closure, and virtual schooling) and other factors, such as lack of backup certified personnel.
- Financial effects of the pandemic on operating budgets were highly variable. Forty-eight percent of utilities took some action to mitigate potential decreases in cash flow. Utilities that took remedial actions like drawing down reserve funds (24%), delaying or canceling capital projects (22%), and delaying maintenance (18%) will continue to feel the effects of the pandemic on their operating budgets in the years ahead.
- To ensure continuity of service during the pandemic and the associated economic downturn, 52% of the nation’s water and wastewater utilities suspended service shutoffs. In addition, many provided extensions on bill payment (44%) and waived late fees (36%). Approximately 65% of utilities took one or more steps such as these to ensure continuity of service.
- Concerns about sampling, laboratory analysis, and cybersecurity during the pandemic were experienced by 11%, 12%, and 1% of utilities, respectively.
- Among answers to free-response questions, a commonly heard theme was the importance of recognizing those in the water sector as essential workers and ensuring that they receive needed support and resources.
The results of the survey highlight the resilience of the water sector in continuing to deliver safe and reliable water services, despite the challenges presented by the pandemic. The data generated by the survey have been publicly posted by EPA (with identifying information removed) for use by other researchers.