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Nation’s Biggest Water Supplier Isolating Staff Over Virus

March 24, 2020, 9:12 PM

The nation’s largest treated water supply district is isolating workers, reducing the number of on-site employees, and giving its executive director broad powers, in the wake of stay-at-home orders and health concerns over the coronavirus pandemic.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California is also recasting technology upgrades to focus more on laptop than desktop computers so that staff can work at home during this outbreak and future emergencies.

The district delivers water to 26 public agencies serving 19 million Californians, or 1 in 17 Americans.

The board met Tuesday in a teleconferenced special meeting where it unanimously granted Executive Director Jeffrey Kightlinger authority to make emergency decisions without getting board approval first.

“The current circumstances will change how we do business for awhile,” Board Chairwoman Gloria Gray said.

Increasing Backup Worker Pool

Regular scheduled maintenance work has stopped and some crews are on paid leave awaiting assignment in case working employees get Covid-19, the disease caused by coronavirus. Facilities are sanitized between shifts and the water district has cut on-site staffing in half, to weekend levels even on weekdays.

“That increases the pool of backup employees if we start losing people due to exposure,” Kightlinger said.

With his new authority, Kightlinger can act when necessary and bring matters to the board after the fact. The first item of concern was securing enough laptops for people to work from home. But down the line, it could be securing emergency supplies or treatment chemicals.

“A board meeting was always seen as something we could do,” he said. “Now we don’t want the board getting together because of social distancing.”

Nearly half of Metropolitan’s 1,600 staff work on-site at its water quality testing lab and treatment plants or in the field doing repairs or upgrades. Others have jobs that can be done from home. But that shined a light on a new issue: many had desktops, not laptops.

Rush on Laptops

The board granted Kightlinger authority to spend about $2.4 million on computer upgrades before coronavirus, but that was for a mix of computers.

He hopes to switch to more laptops, which could increase costs by $750,000 and traditionally require board approval, prompting the request for expanded emergency authority, which can be rescinded when the need is no longer there.

But Hewlett-Packard says it can’t deliver the laptops until probably autumn because there was a rush on purchases as stay-at-home and isolation orders piled up.

“We prepared for earthquakes but not for voluntarily sending half of our workforce home,” Kightlinger said.

As of 3:38 pm EST Tuesday, the United States had 51,117 coronavirus cases and 668 deaths, according to Bloomberg data.

To contact the reporter on this story: Emily C. Dooley at edooley@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergenvironment.com

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