OCWD Staff Steps Up During COVID-19 Outbreak

The Orange County Water District’s (OCWD; the District) robust response plan to the COVID-19 crisis remains in effect and as new guidance is issued, the District is implementing additional measures to mitigate staff risk while also maintaining operational capability. Meetings are taking place, outreach is being conducted, water quality monitoring and lab testing is ongoing, construction continues on the GWRS Final Expansion, recharge operations are being managed, the GWRS continues to operate, deliveries and shipments are received, accounting and finance keeps OCWD going, and the list goes on. Despite the challenging times, OCWD does not stop.

Although not all are mentioned, the following contains a few department updates, and some images of creative work routines that staff are implementing while safely working from home or following safe distancing while onsite.

The entire Research and Development (R&D) department is telecommuting. Microfiltration and reverse osmosis pilots were secured for the time being, while staff focuses on manuscript writing, grant proposals and experimental planning. Onsite operations staff is assisting to replenish water in the pilots periodically to preserve the membranes. The PFAS treatment pilot at Field Headquarters is running well with R&D staff onsite twice a week for periodic inspections and routine data recording.

The District’s Philip L. Anthony Water Quality Laboratory (Lab) continues its functional operation to comply with state and federal monitoring regulations. Lab staff has devised a system that divides staff into two groups, A and B, which work three separate consecutive day shifts; this reduces the number of staff present onsite by 50% to support social distancing and is supplemented by remote work/telecommuting where possible.

Although an adjusted schedule has been developed to limit staff exposure, the Water Quality Department continues to travel throughout Orange County to collect required drinking water compliance samples and required compliance samples for the Groundwater Replenishment System (GWRS) treatment facility. Monitoring efforts continue for coastal seawater intrusion and volatile organic compound investigations of Orange County groundwater. In addition, Water Quality staff is performing many PFAS monitoring activities.

Water Production is the single largest department at OCWD with 63 staff members. Telecommuting is limited to only a few persons due to the nature of the work performed.  The Maintenance, Instrumentation and Electrical, and Barrier groups are on a four day a week, 10 hour a day schedule to minimize the number of persons onsite at a time.  Operations plays a key role to ensure that the GWRS plant, which provides 100 MGD of drinking water to the Orange County Groundwater Basin, is running to standard. It is now more common to have three people in the control room to permit social distancing. Each group has taken on certain measures to protect themselves and employees.

The Engineering department is telecommuting 50% of the time on an alternating day schedule. All meetings, conferences, presentations at board or committee meetings are being conducted online. Staff continues to perform construction inspection for District projects.

Hydrogeology staff has an onsite "skeleton" crew who are primarily involved with field activities such as groundwater level measurements and well
construction/maintenance. Projects such as the North Basin and South Basin remedial investigations/feasibility studies are continuing as well as the Sunset Gap seawater intrusion project involving groundwater modeling and planning for additional monitoring wells. Staff is preparing chapters of the Annual GWRS Report, and responding to internal and external data requests and mapping needs.

The Public Affairs (PA) staff is telecommuting and takes turns having an employee onsite Monday through Friday. PA holds daily virtual meetings and continues to provide outreach and communication to support all District projects and programs, including the District’s COVID-19 response. Messaging vehicles include daily social media, press releases, electronic notices and a monthly newsletter. Although events and tours have been cancelled or postponed until further notice, staff remains active in preparing more virtual experiences.

Finally, none of this would be possible without the impressive efforts of the Information Services (IS) staff. IS worked quickly and intensely to implement a work from home (WFH) capability for District staff and is now primarily providing significant support. Additionally, IS staff has been rolling out Zoom video and audio conferencing for meetings between District staff as well as staff from outside agencies, and board of director’s meetings, Producers’ meetings, bid openings and internal staff meetings.

Through employee adaptation, continued actions and commitment, local water retailers and the 2.5 million people living and working in north and central Orange County can rest assured that the Orange County Water District is running efficiently and effectively to ensure high-quality and abundant drinking water. We’re here for you.