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)

City Uses Reclaimed Water to Bring ‘Dead’ Arizona River Back to Life

TUCSON – Along a parched riverbed where only dust and wild grasses have held sway for the past 70 years, the Santa Cruz now flows.

As of June 24, under the watch of Tucson Water Department officials, a section of the river just west of downtown will receive a maximum of 2.8 million gallons a day of treated effluent to restore the riparian area and help replenish aquifers as part of the Santa Cruz River Heritage Project.

Last weekend, the water flow stretched almost 2.5 miles, far surpassing the city’s expectations. To reduce this excess, Fernando Molina, a spokesman with Tucson Water, said the city lowered the flow Monday, and the water has since receded to about 1 mile in length.

The goal is to keep the river flowing north just past Congress Street, about a half mile south of its current stopping point near Speedway Boulevard, he said.

Tucson officials say the water stretched almost to Speedway Boulevard before the city slowed the flow. (Photo by Dylan Simard/Cronkite News)

Tucson Water director Tim Thomure said the water was available because the city has over-prepared for expected growth and advances have been made in conservation technology and awareness.

“As of 2016, and it’s still true today, we were using the same amount of potable water in Tucson as we were in the mid-1980s, with 200,000 more people and a much more robust economy,” he said. “Because water conservation and efficiency was actually moving faster than new-growth demand for water.”

Most effluent enters Arizona rivers as a means of disposal, Thomure said, but the Heritage Project’s approach of using reclaimed water to restore an ecosystem is the first of its kind in the state.

He called the river the “birthplace of Tucson,” saying the project will honor the river’s rich history and connected culture.

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Humans have used the Santa Cruz since about 1,200 B.C., according to the city’s Heritage Project history page. First used by the Hohokam for drinking water, irrigation and fishing, the river was quickly depleted in the late 1800s when settlers began pumping groundwater.

Dan Stormont, with Sustainable Tucson, a volunteer group, called the project an exciting effort by the city but said it’s not a solution on its own.

“It’s just a Band-Aid, honestly,” he said. “It’s a way to restore the natural flow to a small section of the river and make it look the way it used to look – and that’s going to be a challenge, too, because of course it’s not just a river anymore, it’s also a flood control channel.”

Some concerns have been raised about the project, including an increased threat of floods during monsoon season, the potential toxicity of effluent and doubts over whether some of the predicted positive effects – such as increased tourism – will actually materialize.

Thomure acknowledged the decision to restore a section of the Santa Cruz was made quickly, and that only time will reveal whether these concerns are valid.

The city was required to study the reclaimed water’s quality and quantity, as well as how it would interact with existing groundwater stores, before the project was allowed to move forward, he said. The new water, Thomure said, is just as safe as – if not safer than – the natural river water.

Stormont noted concerns about the water’s safety but said it’s likely safer than some water that already enters the river.

“When you consider anytime it rains, we get a large rain, it’s washing all the hydrocarbons off the street, the heavy metals for brake pads, all of that stuff is running into the rivers and being infiltrated as well,” he said. “The effluent that’s being discharged is much cleaner than most of the runoff from the street.”

However, the effluent being pumped into the Santa Cruz River isn’t 100% purified, Thomure said, because city officials feared that “over-engineered” water would not promote the most natural ecological growth possible. He advised visitors to avoid swimming or drinking the river water.

Tucson resident Deandra Binder’s dog Rat (front) and Whitney Noel’s dog Zinnia (back) enjoy their new, cool place to play at the mouth of a recently awakened section of the Santa Cruz River. (Photo by Deandra Binder)

Whitney Noel and Deandra Binder of Tucson, who took their dogs for a walk along the riverbed at the mouth of the revived portion, said they’d like the city to make the waterfront more accessible to visitors.

“I think it’s going to bring tons of people out,” Noel said. “There’s no water down here. Even the spots out at Tanque Verde Falls, different areas that we go to … , just to get to water in the summertime.”

Thomure said if the project receives continued public support and proves to be sustainable, the city would be open to enacting similar projects farther down the river. This section, at least, is here to stay.

“We expect the water to be discharged to the river indefinitely,” Thomure said. “There will be times where we turn off the flow to maintain the system. There’ll also be times when we turn off the flow when monsoon rains are actually happening and we have natural flows, but this will be a flowing stream from here on out.”

Noel said she hopes the increased river flow instills a sense of pride in Tucson residents and visitors.

“I think a lot of people are going to take pride in it and hopefully keep it really clean,” Noel said. “I would totally volunteer to come down here and clean it up.”

Stormont said this project may be a stepping stone toward further habitat restoration efforts in Tucson.

“It’s not the answer to all our problems, but it is an exciting project that I think does give people some motivation to see what our rivers could look like if we are more careful in how we manage our water,” he said. “Hopefully it’s the first step towards restoring the flow of our rivers in Tucson.”

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

Taking the ‘Waste’ out of Wastewater: A 100% Recycling Goal for Los Angeles

LOS ANGELES – Mayor Eric Garcetti has a new goal for Los Angeles: recycling 100 percent of our wastewater, but it’ll take 16 years and $2 billion to do it.

How do sanitation officials plan to make that happen? The biggest piece of the puzzle involves upgrading the Hyperion Water Reclamation Plant, the largest such facility in the western United States.

Located near LAX and Dockweiler Beach, the plant is L.A.’s oldest and largest wastewater treatment facility (roughly the size of Disneyland). It processes 260 million gallons of wastewater every day, recycling roughly a quarter of that.

Garcetti said that right now the roughly 75% of the water from the Hyperion plant that isn’t drinkable just ends up back in the ocean but this plan would change that.

“We will sell it to neighboring cities, including El Segundo and West Hollywood and Santa Monica and use it for the city of L.A…. It gives us everyday almost a quarter billion gallons that we can use for landscaping or putting back into the aquifer for drinking water,” he said.

Boosting the recycle rate from 25 percent to 100 percent won’t come cheap. The city’s Bureau of Sanitation (BOS) estimates the improvements at the Hyperion plant will cost about $2 billion to reach the mayor’s goal by 2035.

“Los Angeles is confident in its ability to finance this project largely through federal and state funding, and plans to supplement these funds through city cash or bond money,” mayor’s office officials said in a statement.

City officials said they’re working with Sacramento to secure funds, which they expect to be freed up by Gov. Gavin Newsom’s one-tunnel solution to the delta water project.

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Garcetti says he thinks the state could supply all of the money to pay for the project, especially with the savings from the one-tunnel solution.

“We’re not raising anybody’s taxes to do all of this because we can sell the water, it’ll pay for itself. But to finance it up front and to build out the infrastructure of the new pipes that will take water out of this plant and back into the system, we hope that the state will step up,” he said.

It’s also in the state’s interest to support the project because it will benefit all of California, he said.

“It’s a service not just to L.A. but to all of the state, because we don’t have to pull water away from the rest of our state’s precious resources.” Listen to Garcetti’s interview on KPCC’s Take Two.

So, what’s the journey of recycled wastewater?

According to the mayor’s office, the initial process at treatment plants puts it at “near-drinking water quality.” After that, the recycled water travels to one of L.A.’s groundwater treatment replenishment facilities, where it’s filtered into the basin over time, mixing with the existing groundwater.

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Then, the water is extracted and treated again at that groundwater facility “before it reaches drinking water quality and enters the water distribution system.”

The Hyperion plant is one of L.A.’s four water treatment facilities. The other three – L.A. Glendale, Tillman and Terminal Island – are already at 100 percent recycled water capacity. City officials are confident they can do the same with Hyperion.

According to the mayor’s office, the projects at that plant will “create good-paying engineering, construction, operations, and maintenance jobs,” although no estimate of how many was immediately available.

One project BOS is developing at the Hyperion plant is a “1.5 MGD Advanced Water Purification Facility,” which officials said will supply recycled water for use at LAX facilities and to equipment at the plant itself by 2021.

Treatment plant battles leaking sewage pipe, heavy metals that kill key microbes

NOGALES – A transborder pipeline that brings millions of gallons of raw sewage from Mexico to the U.S. faces challenges on two fronts. The pipe is nearly 70 years old and increasingly prone to leaksand heavy metals in the wastewater are causing problems at the Arizona plant where it’s treated.

Every day, 14 million gallons of wastewater are delivered to the Nogales International Wastewater Treatment Plant near Rio Rico after traveling about 9 miles through a pipeline known as the International Outfall Interceptor. The arrangement was reached in the 1940s when the U.S. agreed to treat sewage from Mexico. The treated effluent also is used to supplement the Santa Cruz River and riparian areas along its banks.

After a monsoon storm surge last July, the pipe broke, spewing millions of gallons of raw sewage and toxic heavy metals into streams that feed the Santa Cruz. That section of pipe has been fixed, but the entire pipe needs repairs.

The Santa Cruz river in Tubac, Arizona. (Photo by Nicole Neri/Cronkite News)

There are plans to line the pipe with fabric coated in special resin. It would cost nearly $25 million, most of which would come from federal funds. The remaining $4.6 million would come from Arizona or local entities.

Erin Jordan with the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality said conversations are ongoing over where they could find those dollars.

That’s the long-term solution, but U.S. and Mexico officials must deal with how to keep the system working with microorganisms that feed off the sewage.

After the water gets to the treatment center, it takes 12 hours for full treatment. Microorganisms are one step of the process before the treated water is released into the Santa Cruz River. Without this effluent, the river would shrink to 6 miles long from 18 miles long in Santa Cruz County.

Hans Huth, an ADEQ hydrologist, said those microorganisms struggle to survive when such metals as nickel, copper and zinc are present. In June, a spike in zinc in the wastewater decreased the microbes’ efficiency. Lori Kuczmanski with the International Border and Water Commission, which operates the Nogales treatment center, said the metals come from south of the border, but the exact source of the contamination isn’t known.

“The levels were high enough to impair the operational efficiency of the plant, specifically the microbiology,” Huth said at a public meeting earlier this month in Tubac.

Lorenzo Ortiz, Assistant Area Operations Manager of Nogales International Wastewater Treatment Plant talks about the workings of the treatment plant in Nogales, Arizona.The plant processes wastewater from Nogales, Sonora and Nogales, Arizona and puts the treated water into the Santa Cruz river. (Photo by Nicole Neri/Cronkite News)

Glycerin helps keep the microbes active when water toxicity gets too high, Kuczmanski said. If the bacteria die off, ammonia could end up in the river and hurt wildlife.

Officials are now looking for options to either certify labs in Mexico to test and monitor metal levels there. Otherwise, a U.S. lab may have to step up and support the effort to ensure compliance.

Even though the wastewater brings hazards, the water helps keep the Santa Cruz River from shrinking and provides water to farmers and industry.

Green Valley resident Marilyn French-St. George, who attended the public meeting, said she worries the water may disappear.

“I’m of an age where I don’t want to be moving in my 80s because there’s no water,” French-St. George said. “All the value of my home is diminished considerably because of poorer water quality.”

– Video by Bryce Newberry

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