Recently, a field team member of the Fair Oaks Water District was reading water meters in Fair Oaks Village, the town center, and noticed water bubbling up from the ground near a home. Seeing that it was a leak, he turned off the home’s water at the meter, following normal protocol.
Our customer service team immediately reached out to the homeowner and learned that the woman, in her 80s and recently widowed, was confused about finding a plumber to fix the leak quickly. She was rightfully worried about going without water, especially during the coronavirus emergency. For most water providers, including Fair Oaks Water District, normal operating policies clearly state that our responsibility stops at the meter. It’s up to customers to fix leaks on their property. But, as we all know, these are not normal times. The front-line employees recognized a need, took this situation to the general manager, and the decision was made to repair the leak on the customer’s water line at no charge to the customer.
Over the past several weeks, the coronavirus emergency has provided unexpected opportunities to focus more than ever on serving people — our employees, customers and communities.
When the COVID-19 emergency first struck, people stockpiled bottled water as might be expected with a natural disaster. But coronaviruses pose no threat to water quality since chlorination, which is used to treat the water served in Fair Oaks and throughout the state, is known to kill viruses.
The greatest threat to our water supplies is actually that our employees will become ill and unable to contribute their skills needed to keep the water flowing. Water providers are taking special steps to keep their people safe and healthy for the long haul and are particularly focused on water operations, which require certified staff with specialized training. At Fair Oaks Water District, for example, water supply specialists have been designated teams that avoid all physical contact with each other.
Rather than rotating shifts in and out of the office, for the past several months we designated one group of employees to report to the office every day while others work from home. This ensures that we have a “deep bench” at the ready so we can keep the water flowing to our customers. On June 1, following Sacramento County COVID-19 guidance, we resumed “normal” operations. Yet, we are continuing to follow protocols established to protect our employees and customers: Every day, our office team, including myself, reports to work, and we each take our temperature. If it’s within the healthy range, we continue with our work day, practicing social distancing and washing our hands frequently. Or, if needed, another person is ready to come off the bench and continue in our place.
Understanding that this emergency is more than a health crisis — that it’s also a financial crisis for many people — we suspended shutting off water service to customers for non-payment on March 19. This decision came even before Gov. Gavin Newsom mandated this policy and will continue until the governor’s moratorium on shut-offs ends. This decision was taken with the knowledge that there will be financial impacts to our operations, but that we are not operating under normal circumstances.
FOWD is in a unique position for a public utility — we have no debt, our rates are near the lowest in the region and we have a reasonable reserve fund — therefore it is the District’s intention to absorb the revenue lost due to COVID-19.
If the predicted second wave of COVID-19 hits, however, making up this lost revenue becomes more complicated for the public water community. Just as COVID-19 is the most severe and disruptive health crisis in generations, it is also threatening the financial stability of water suppliers providing an essential public health service. Water utilities are faced with an extraordinary combination of increasing costs to meet needs and falling revenues resulting from declining commercial use and personal financial strain on ratepayers. According to the American Water Works Association, nationwide these unprecedented pressures are projected to cost water utilities in the rage of $13 billion to $15 billion.
As a public agency, FOWD is committed to ensuring that our customers pay the lowest possible cost for clean, safe, reliable water delivered to homes and businesses. The District, in partnership with other local water providers, are looking at several options for offsetting any revenue losses. Options include federal and state assistance, as well as revenue generated by using the region’s groundwater bank to offer excess water, when available, to other parts of California that need it. Without that assistance, water providers will be left with few good options to ensure they have sufficient funds necessary to provide their essential service other than directly affecting our valued customers.
Another thing we decided early in this emergency is to support our local businesses whenever we can. Once a week, we split costs with staff working at the office to order a meal from one of the several restaurants dotted in and around Fair Oaks: The employees contribute half of the cost, while I pay for the other half. Doing this seemed like such a small contribution, but I came to see its significance as one restaurant owner wept in thanks.
In doing our jobs, we understand that those reporting to the office are potentially putting themselves and families at risk just like all of the health care workers, grocery store clerks and others providing essential services right now. On the other hand, we know that our community needs clean, reliable water for drinking and washing hands, fighting fires, serving hospitals and running sewer systems — that we are contributing to something that is bigger than one person alone. With this in mind, we keep the water flowing.
Tom Gray is general manager of the Fair Oaks Water District. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Professor Jennifer Harder is the co-director of the Water & Environmental Law program at McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento. Comstock’s spoke with Harder about water issues affecting the Capital Region and California.
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