July 6, 2020
 

By Heather Cooley

Changes in Water Demand

The COVID-19 pandemic has imposed massive health and economic burdens on communities around the world, and no sector of society is going untouched, including the vitally important water sector. The full extent of impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on the water sector are still emerging, but one area that has come to the fore is the effect on municipal water demand. Available data indicate that residential water demand has increased while non-residential demand has decreased. In Portsmouth, England, for example, residential demand increased by 15 percent during the lockdown, while non-residential demand declined by 17 percent. Likewise, in San Francisco, California, residential demand increased by 10 percent, while non-residential demand declined by 32 percent. 

 

“Available data indicate that residential water demand has increased while non-residential demand has decreased.”

 

These changes are, in part, due to the simple fact that people are doing more at home during the coronavirus pandemic – like cooking, washing dishes, flushing toilets, and showering – and less in the office, at restaurants, and at the gym. Moreover, while business is up for a handful of sectors – like hospitals and some food production – other important water-using sectors of the economy have slowed or shut down entirely.  

The net effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on total water demand varies from community to community, depending on the relative proportion of residential and non-residential water uses and the makeup of the non-residential sectors. Most communities – including larger metropolitan systems in Boston (Massachusetts) and Austin (Texas) – have experienced a reduction in total water demand. More residential communities have experienced either modest increases or the smallest decreases.  

A Ripple of Effects 

Sudden changes in the levels and patterns of water demand from stay-at-home orders and business shutdowns can have knock-on effects, affecting building water quality, customer water bills, utility revenue, and water and wastewater operational conditions:  

Building Water Quality: Under normal conditions, the regular flow of disinfected tap water keeps water and plumbing free of corrosion, leached minerals, and bacteria. But when water systems are shut down or inactive for weeks or months, residual disinfectants in water, such as chlorine, can dissipate. Several potential hazards must be considered before reopening buildings or water systems, including the risk of mold, Legionella (the cause of Legionnaires’ disease), leaching of lead and other metals, and the presence of disinfection by-products. Many building owners are unaware of the risks and the actions they should take, and there are no official national or industry regulations for safely reopening buildings after extended shutdowns. 

Customer Water Bills: Changes in water use will lead to changes in customer bills. Because water bills typically include a fixed fee that would remain unchanged, the change in the bill is typically considerably less than the change in water usage, i.e., the additional cost of a 10 percent increase in water usage would be much less than 10 percent. But for those already struggling to pay bills or newly unemployed, even a modest increase in household bills can be problematic. Businesses are likely to see costs go down temporarily, but these savings are moderated by fixed fees and could still be problematic for those that are shutdown.  

 

 “For those already struggling to pay bills or newly unemployed, even a modest increase in household bills can be problematic.”

 

Utility Revenue: Utilities where total water use has declined during the coronavirus pandemic will see a drop in revenue. Revenue losses are compounded by higher costs and likely increases in non-payment, putting further pressures on water utilities. For example, a survey of U.S. water utilities during the pandemic indicated that some are offering hazard pay and overtime to essential workers, expanding training, and spending more on certain supplies. Moreover, many states have placed a temporary moratorium on customer disconnections, further affecting revenue. Impacts are likely to be more severe for small utilities, as they have a smaller customer base to absorb revenue losses.  

Water and Wastewater System Operations: Even with a small change in total water demand, changes within a water system may be more dramatic. For North Carolina’s Cape Fear Public Utility Authority, water demand across its service area was down only three percent, but demand in two subsystems serving largely residential areas increased by 25 percent and 36 percent. Moreover, as businesses reopen and implement hygiene and disinfection practices and as temperatures rise, water use may rise dramatically. Such rapid and dramatic changes in water use can exacerbate existing — and reveal new — system weaknesses. Managing these weaknesses may be more difficult as operators adjust to reduced staffing, working remotely, and other changes related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Here, too, small water systems are more vulnerable because they have fewer operators.  

Some of these impacts will be short-lived, generally limited to the period when stay-at-home orders are in place and businesses closed. However, there could be longer-term impacts if, for example, the pandemic remains out of control, unemployment remains high, people continue to work from home, or there are deeper changes to the economy.  

 

“There could be longer-term impacts if the pandemic remains out of control, unemployment remains high, people continue to work from home, or there are deeper changes to the economy.”

 

There is still much we don’t know. For example, we don’t know the extent or duration of the pandemic, or the range of impacts on different water systems, or the effectiveness of efforts to mitigate these impacts. But we do know that we are facing a more variable and uncertain future – from social disruptions like the COVID-19 pandemic to more extreme droughts and floods due to climate change. Immediate action is needed to ensure the safety of water during building reopening, and sustained effort is needed improve the financial and operational resilience of water utilities to ensure that they can continue to provide critical water and wastewater services. 

Ensuring Water Safety During Building Reopening 

  • Building operators and managers should take immediate proactive steps to protect public health by addressing building water quality prior to reopening, and actions taken should be shared with building occupants. 
  • Water utilities should proactively reach out to commercial and industrial customers with information about safe reopening procedures. In North America, the American Water Works Association (AWWA), Canadian Water and Wastewater Association, CDC, U.S. EPA, and other groups offer recommendations for both specific actions and community outreach. 
  • Facilities with their own water systems must consider protective actions. Groups that maintain their own water supply, including some schools, restaurants, churches, and recreational facilities, should contact their primacy agencies with specific questions.
  • Local, state, and federal agencies should make special efforts to reach out to groups with limited access to technical expertise and financial resources. This includes small rural water systems, disadvantaged communities, Native American communities, and other groups with special water supply and quality challenges. 

Enhancing Water Utility Resilience 

  • Water utilities should expand their efforts to develop more robust and sophisticated “resilience” plans. Such plans can help water utilities prepare for and mitigate a wider range of risks than traditional planning approaches have addressed, including extreme climatic conditions, health threats like the COVID-19 pandemic, and the failure of key infrastructure. 
  • Water utilities and municipalities should accelerate the pace and scale of digital monitoring and operational technologies. Such technologies can provide advance notice of developing problem and allow the continued safe operation of critical systems even with reduced staffing and shelter-in-place orders. 
  • Water utilities should proactively update their pricing and financial policiesWhile it may not be feasible to change pricing policies in response to the immediate impacts of the pandemic, changes may be needed to address the longer-term economic impacts and build resilience to future crises. Some strategies that should be evaluated include budget-based or inclining block rates, drought surcharges, and cash reserves. 
  • Water utilities should consider purchasing commercial insurance products that provide coverage for business interruptions. While commercial products may not specifically address all the challenges posed by the pandemic, more general policy terms can be negotiated in case of future disruptions.
  • National governments and international aid agencies should increase financial assistance and accelerate the disbursement of this assistance. Financial assistance can help ensure much-needed utility infrastructure investments are maintained and stimulate economic recovery. Such funding should be prioritized for small systems and for projects that (1) enhance sustainability and resilience outcomes and (2) serve disadvantaged communities that lack comprehensive access to safe water and sanitation.

Learn more in the Pacific Institute Issue Brief Water and the COVID-19 Pandemic: Impacts on Municipal Water Demand

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