A Lot Of You Had Questions About Coronavirus In The Water. We Have Some Answers.

The coronavirus pandemic is so new to us that things that seemed so certain — like the safety of our water supply — are suddenly raising questions. Among the nearly 1,500 questions our newsroom has fielded since the outbreak of COVID-19, some have been about water. They usually go something like this:

Can a person get the coronavirus from their home or work water supply?

The simple answer is: not really. Although the coronavirus can live in drinking water and sewage, it’s not likely to come into contact with you; our systems for moving water around, treating it, and disposing of it all work very well.

That said, there are reasonable precautions you can take, and things you can do to help our public drinking water and wastewater systems best serve our collective health.

Here are answers to some common questions about drinking water:

What risk does coronavirus pose to our drinking water supply?

The risk is exceptionally low, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Our major public water providers say coronavirus is not present in the drinking water supply coming to your home or work. Those include the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power which supplies the city of L.A., and Metropolitan Water District, which supplies imported water to much of Southern California.

The water in your home or business in Southern California comes from local underground wells, and from aqueducts carrying it from Northern California or Colorado. Some water systems also have water that has been recycled. But in all cases the water coming out of your faucet has been treated to remove pathogens and disinfected with chlorine.

Some small residual of chlorine should still be in the water when it gets to your faucet.

Also, water in underground pipes and inside your home and workplace is under pressure, which helps keep contamination from getting into the water.

So, is it impossible for coronavirus to get into our tap water?

It’s unlikely but not impossible.

UC Riverside chemical engineering professor Haizhou Liu studies water treatment. He co-authored a paper calling for more research into how to remove coronavirus from public drinking and wastewater treatment systems. He says scientists recognize that coronavirus can live in both drinking water and sewage and that conventional treatments inactivate or kill the virus, but that more needs to be known about that process and how to improve it.

In drinking water systems, organic microorganisms can develop what’s called a biofilm on the interior of corroded pipes. The biofilm creates a kind of structure that viruses in the pipes can stick to and colonize, Liu said.

Under limited circumstances, the corrosion could flake loose from the interior of a pipe and cause the biofilm and its coronavirus colony to flow through the pipe to end users — that’s you — by way of a faucet, showerhead, garden hose, etc.. That could happen, for example, if a water utility changed the source of its water (like switching from well water to imported water, or from lake water to river water), causing a change in the chemical balance of the water, Liu said.

But this isn’t exactly cause for alarm. Los Angeles DWP General Manager Marty Adams said there is a very low risk that biofilms could carry coronavirus into our homes:

“If you were away for weeks at a time or starting a brand new water service for a house that had been unoccupied, you’d probably want to flush your lines really well first. That’s because that water could be sitting, which means that the chlorine in the line could have dissipated and maybe a biofilm started to form.”

If tap water’s safe, why are people stockpiling bottled water?

Back in March, when we were all told to stay home for several weeks, this was such a new situation, it seemed rational for people to buy up the one thing they consider essential. And it’s a generally good practice, here in earthquake country, to always have a supply that could keep you going for about two weeks. It shouldn’t take pandemic to get us to stock up, but that’s what happened.

Bottled water, or the filtered water you use to fill your jug at the water store generally does not have the same chlorine residual in it that purifies tap water, Adams said. Once your bottled water is unsealed, or your jug of water from the local water store is open, it’s important to keep it clean so it doesn’t become contaminated.

Can I get coronavirus from a faucet that an infected person recently used?

We know by now that the coronavirus is spread by person-to-person contact, and also by touching items that infected people have touched. So you might think that includes a kitchen or bathroom faucet.

Good handwashing (instructions here) means using soap all over your hands under running water for 20 seconds. Soap breaks down the envelope membrane surrounding the virus and renders it inactive. Soap also helps remove the oils on your hands the virus sticks to. The running water rinses it away. Use a towel to dry your hands and turn off the faucet.

If you’re living in a home with a person who is self-isolating because they have or might have the coronavirus, that person should be the only one using that restroom, if possible. If not, clean the high-touch surfaces in that restroom after every use.

What about steam from showers?

Liu’s paper said the novel coronavirus could colonize biofilms that line drinking water pipes, making showerheads a possible source of aerosolized transmission, meaning the water droplets make a fine spray that can carry the virus.

But, again, most water treatment routines and residual chlorine are thought to kill or remove coronaviruses effectively in tap water Liu said.

Pipes convey wastewater at Hyperion Water Reclamation Plant near Dockweiler Beach. (Phot by Dan Tuffs/KPCC+LAist)

Is coronavirus in wastewater?

Yes, if it’s in you, it’s going to get into the wastewater system through the kitchen, shower, washing machine and toilet. Wastewater moves in a closed system of underground pipes to regional wastewater treatment plants, it’s unlikely you would come in contact with it.

Those plants are where the coronavirus gets killed. The kind of wastewater treatment common in Southern California removes many pathogens that are actually more difficult to kill than the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, said Traci Minimide, chief operating officer for LA City Sanitation and Environment, which includes the Hyperion Water Reclamation Plant near Dockweiler Beach.

“The coronavirus is what they call an enveloped virus. And once that envelope is broken, then that basically inactivates the virus,” Minamide said. “And it’s much more fragile than other viruses.”

One of the big problems at wastewater plants right now is that people are flushing lots of things they shouldn’t. When toilet paper was hoarded during the panic purchasing of March, Angelenos started using other products that don’t disintegrate in the sewer system.

Paper towels and so-called flushable wipes can block some of the equipment at pump stations and treatment plants. So Minamide asked the public to flush only toilet paper and dispose of other products in the trash.

Is it safe to be in the ocean?

Some treated wastewater is discharged into the ocean from the Los Angeles city sanitation plant near Dockweiler beach. That water is not given a final disinfection with chlorine because it could harm ocean life. That already-treated water is discharged into the ocean using a pipe that is 5 miles long and 200 feet deep. It’s a very cold and salty environment. Minamide said local studies have shown that the discharged water does not return to the beach. So beachgoers or surfers should not be at risk from that water.

That said, surface runoff that might have virus in it does reach the ocean, so there is still a good reason to avoid the beach for now.

Hyperion Water Reclamation Plant, solid items like paper towels, sanitary supplies and “flushable” wipes being skimmed from raw sewage on Nov. 12, 2015. (Photo by Dan Tuffs/KPCC+LAist)

Bye-Bye Beaches: How Parts of SoCal’s Iconic Coast Could Disappear in Our Lifetime

LOS ANGELES – The stretch of coast from Santa Monica to Malibu is iconic and quintessentially Californian. It’s also ridiculously beautiful — and it’s clear, based on the latest science, it could be unrecognizable by the end of the century.

As the planet warms, sea levels will continue to rise, threatening some of our most beloved stretches of coastline.

I was lucky enough to spend a lot of time on those beaches. Raised in the San Fernando Valley, I used to head over the hill in my friend’s baby blue VW bus, or my mom’s minivan, to surf Topanga or Malibu on my 9’8 Kennedy longboard. It was and still is an amazing escape from the traffic, heat and urban sprawl of the Valley.

I wanted to know exactly what climate change could mean for our beach-going experience through the end of the century, so I reached out to scientists and stakeholders to find out what they know.

Here are the challenges — and some solutions.

Seas Will Rise

First, some context.

A few feet of sea level rise might not sound very alarming, but every vertical foot could mean roughly 20 feet farther that the ocean encroaches inland (depending on a lot of factors, like the slope of the coastline), according to Patrick Barnard, a research scientist at the US Geological Survey.

The state’s 2018 sea level rise guidance laid out different scenarios based on how much we curb our greenhouse gas emissions.

Low emissions: 66% chance of between 0.9 and 2.3 feet of rise in Santa Monica by 2100, and similar rise in other parts of Southern California.

Low emissions: 66% chance of between 0.9 and 2.3 feet of rise in Santa Monica by 2100, and similar rise in other parts of Southern California.

As a precaution, the report recommends that state officials anticipate 10 feet of rise when building crucial infrastructure along the coast.

Keep in mind some researchers think we’ve been underestimating just how bad things could get.

Beaches Will Disappear

According to a paper co-authored by Barnard, SoCal could lose between 31% – 67% of its beaches by 2100.

And areas like Malibu could be threatened in the coming decades.

“I mean these are very, very narrow beaches. They’re already having lots of issues, and just a bit of sea level rise and they’re going to be completely gone,” said Barnard, adding that Malibu could see a major loss of its beaches in the coming decades.

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Homes are sandwiched between rising water and Pacific Coast Highway at Carbon Beach in Malibu. Photographed from the air on September 9, 2019 in Malibu, California. (Video by James Bernal for LAist)

Our coastline is always changing, but as sea levels rise and intense storm surges (potentially) become more common, there’s conflict between natural processes and the parts of our coast we want to save.

“If we didn’t have anything built on the coast, the beaches in the coastal zone are incredibly dynamic and built to change. When sea level comes up, the beach moves in. When sea level goes out … the beach moves out with it,” said Kiki Patsch, who studies sediment dynamics at Cal State Channel Islands.

“But when sea level rises and we draw a line in the sand and say, ‘This is the beach and these are my homes,’ we have a problem,” she said.

When water encroaches and beaches have nowhere to go, because we decide to protect infrastructure and homes, we’re likely going to lose those beaches.

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Santa Monica’s beaches are substantially wider than those in Malibu. Photographed from the air on September 9, 2019 in Santa Monica, California. (Video by James Bernal for LAist)

Beaches like Santa Monica that have been widened with massive amounts of sediment could hold up with regular additions of sand, at least for a period of time.

Here’s a visualization of what rising sea levels could theoretically look like from the pier:

Caltrans just released its vulnerability assessments for our region, and they’re particularly bleak for our coast. There’s not much area between the ocean and the hills in many spots. Really, much of it’s just homes and critical infrastructure, like PCH. Which means that in some places we’re going to have to decide between one or the other.

“There can be situations where if we’re using shoreline protection to protect private residential development, that might be coming at the expense of a public beach area. And that’s going to be a huge environmental justice issue,” said Madeline Cavaleri, statewide planning manager for the California Coastal Commission. “We don’t know how this is going to play out.”

Las Tunas Beach, and the homes along the coast will see signifcant sea level rise over time because of the effects of climate change. Photographed on September 9, 2019 in Malibu, California. (Photo by James Bernal for LAist)

Surfing Could Take a (Duck) Dive

Surf spots are complicated.

I talked to Dan Reineman, a professor at Cal State Channel Islands who’s studied the impact of sea level rise on waves.

He said that at three feet, Malibu’s waves could get mushy. Surfers already experience that at high tide. With sea level rise it would be like it’s high tide all the time.

That said, it’s more complicated than just plunking down additional water on top of a break. How we manage our coasts and sediment flow will all impact what we experience on shore.

Scenes from a Monday morning at Malibu Surfrider Beach on September 9, 2019 in Malibu, California. (Photo by James Bernal for LAist)

“Whether you are armoring the sea cliffs or damming the rivers, that’ll have ramifications all of the way down the coast, because that is where the sand is coming from,” said Patsch.

That could mean that if we decide to stick sea walls and big piles of rocks up and down our coast to protect what’s there, surf spots could suffer, too.

That could, “pull the sand offshore and downshore, so it’ll get deeper offshore. Waves break because they start to interact with the bottom, so when it’s deeper you lose your surf break,” she said.

Derek Grimes, a Ph.D. student in physical oceanography at Scripps, noted that while the transport of sediment could negatively impact Malibu’s beaches, we don’t know how it could impact other breaks up and down the coast. It’s possible that new, sought-after spots will pop up.

Grimes told me he’s seen that happen off the coast of North Carolina when the bottom of channels are dredged for ships.

What We Do Matters

The good news is that everything we love about our coast is not going to disappear overnight. And we’ll have the opportunity to decide how we want to manage things going forward.

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For instance:

We can continue to dump sand and “nourish” beaches, though sand is an expensive and finite resource that can be wiped away easily by storms.

Places like Santa Monica and Cardiff Beach are experimenting with living dunes.

We can move homes and Highway 1 – and maybe even turn the latter into, say, hiking areas, like they did in Pacifica.

And some people want to install armoring up and down our entire coast, which could run into big problems with California law. Some homeowners in places like Broad Beach in Malibu figured out a workaround and did it on their own.

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.