AVON — Municipal water providers in Aspen, Vail, Steamboat and other communities say there is no threat from COVID-19 in their water supplies and that people do not need to hoard bottled water — provided that the employees who operate the various water plants can still come to work.
And yet, two weeks into Colorado’s crisis, you still see people exiting the state’s grocery stores with shopping carts brimming with multipacks of 4-ply Charmin or Angel Soft toilet paper. And buried under the TP, you’ll spot the 48-bottle cartons of Arrowhead or Fiji water.
Toilet paper aside, water systems operators around the state — including ski towns, which are among the hardest-hit areas for the novel coronavirus pandemic — do not understand why people think they need to stock up on bottled water.
“Aspen Water provides safe, high-quality water that exceeds all stringent state and federal drinking-water regulations,” said City of Aspen spokeswoman Mitzi Rapkin. “Aspen’s water-treatment methods use filtration and disinfection process which remove and inactivate viruses.”
The same is true for Front Range water utilities.
“We have wastewater-treatment facilities that work above and beyond the standards devised for us, so there is no worry that water would be impacted by COVID-19,” said Ryan Maecker, spokesman for Colorado Springs Utilities, where surrounding El Paso County is second only to Denver in the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the state.
Those drinking-water standards, established by the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1974, are enforced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
“The water is treated and it’s disinfected, which takes care of all viruses,” said Linn Brooks, general manager of Eagle River Water and Sanitation District in eastern Eagle County, which has the third-highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the state.
Officials say water should be the least of anyone’s concerns during the growing outbreak, which has prompted an unprecedented statewide stay-at-home order and has seen most nonessential businesses and schools shut down.
“No, there are no water shortages. No, municipal water is not a vector for COVID-19,” said Zach Margolis, utility manager for Silverthorne Water & Sewer in Summit County.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the coronavirus is thought to spread in the following manner: “Mainly from person-to-person between people who are in close contact with one another (within about 6 feet) … through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs.”
Michelle Carr, distribution and collection manager for the City of Steamboat Springs Water and Sewer, attended a CDC webinar on the topic of COVID-19 and drinking-water systems.
“It said that the coronavirus is essentially very susceptible to our disinfection processes, and that while our disinfection process targets bacteria, bacteria is less susceptible than this virus,” Carr said. “So, the fact that we’re treating for killing bacteria means that we should adequately be taking care of the COVID virus.”
Buying bottled water during the ongoing pandemic makes no sense, she said.
“Our water is completely safe to drink,” Carr said. “I don’t anticipate that there will ever be an issue where we’re spreading COVID-19 through the treated potable water system. The bottled water is completely unnecessary.”
Brooks won’t speculate on why people are hoarding toilet paper, but she does have a theory regarding the stockpiling of bottled water.
“I think (people) see communications on how to isolate at home, how to prepare to a shelter in place, how to deal with emergencies, and those instructions almost always tell you to get bottled water,” said Brooks, adding that some people inexplicably prefer to drink bottled water all the time. “I don’t particularly understand that because our water here is so great, and (bottled water) certainly has an environmental impact.”
Various municipal, county and state emergency declarations have been enacted, covering water systems, but officials say those mostly just allow them to apply for state and federal funds or obtain additional equipment if necessary. Most water providers and wastewater-treatment operators are planning for staff shortages and doing everything they can to keep their staff healthy.
“We are not aware of any specific threats to our water system,” said Aspen’s Rapkin. “We have taken proactive measures to isolate our operations staff in order to continue to provide this critical community resource.”
Brooks agrees that staffing is the biggest concern as the virus spreads.
“Our biggest risk is absenteeism of our operators,” she said. “But, that being said, we can run with a pretty lean crew even if we got into some pretty significant absenteeism, as long as it doesn’t hit everyone at once, which we don’t think is likely at all.”
Eagle River Water and Sanitation District, which treats and provides water for users from East Vail to Wolcott along Interstate 70, took steps to mitigate against absenteeism early on.
“We knew that that was going to be our biggest risk and that protecting our employees was the most important thing that we could do. That’s our highest priority — to keep our staff healthy,” said Brooks, who added that any staffer with a symptom of any kind must stay home from work and not return until they have been free of symptoms for 72 hours.
Even if smaller mountain utilities were to be hit suddenly by a COVID-19 outbreak and get into staffing problems, other water-systems operators would step in to help. A cooperative venture among all utilities across the state and codified with intergovernmental agreements dictates that if a utility needs assistance, others will provide aid.
“So, if there’s somebody that has a plant failure, and we have staffing, we will send our staffing to them,” City of Aurora Water Department spokesman Greg Baker said during a call with other Aurora and Colorado Springs water officials. “I know Colorado Springs has been heavily involved in (mutual assistance) as well, so that should really not be a major concern.”
The desire to hoard bottled water, on the other hand, escapes officials.
“The bottled-water hoarding is a phenomenon we do not understand, because we bring safe, high-quality drinking water to your house,” Baker said. “We deliver it for a half a penny a gallon, so why are people going out and buying water? We do not understand that at all.”
Also, all the plastic is an environmental issue, Baker said, and transporting it around the state or out of state in bottles removes local water from Aurora’s extensive reuse system for irrigation and agriculture.
“So, whenever people take bottled water and start shipping it out, you’re kind of losing that reusable component, and that impacts our culture because we’re so used to reusability. So that hurts us there,” Baker said. “It also hurts us through the fact that, frankly, we have some of the highest-quality water in the state, and why do you need it in a bottle? It’s as irrational as the toilet-paper hoarding.”
Aspen Journalism collaborates with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of water and rivers. This story ran in the March 28 editions of The Aspen Times and the Vail Daily.