Stormwater Monitoring in the Time of COVID-19. Case Study of Adaptation, Communication, and Project Execution in Uncertain Times

Date / Time:
Wednesday, Sep 16 3:05pm to 3:35pm
Track / Session:
Track: Monitoring and TMDL Implementation / Session 8

Water quality monitoring in natural streams presents many challenges but one we never envisioned came in the form of the novel coronavirus and COVID-19. The spread of the virus and the subsequent government shutdown of non-essential activities in March 2020 shocked our typical way of living and working. Collection of compliance related water quality samples was deemed an “essential” activity by the CA state government, so we were compelled to continue ongoing monitoring projects. Stormwater monitoring is a logistical challenge under the best circumstances but added to these were the additional CDC guidelines of physical distance, personal hygiene, cleanliness of items such as equipment and vehicles, and incorporation of face coverings to reduce the spread of the virus. This presentation provides a case study of how we were able to adapt our safety protocols, communicate those protocols effectively to staff, and continue to execute work while maintaining both high data quality and personnel safety.

The case study focuses on a large, watershed scale monitoring program that includes dry weather sampling, sediment sampling, and reservoir surface sampling, but this presentation focuses on the stormwater monitoring component. Water quality sampling at 9 creeks sites, 8 wetland sites, and 5 MS4 outfalls was conducted during three storm events. In early March state and local governments began issuing increasingly strict guidance and lockdown orders and the situation began to change rapidly. Midway through the second storm-sampling event, Governor Gavin Newsom issued the statewide stay-at-home order, which immediately created many questions; primarily, do we need to stop the project? Are all these samples and effort collecting them wasted? Can we visit stores for supplies during storm events? And many others. Through effective communication internally and with our clients, we immediately developed and implemented safety protocols that allowed the team to continue monitoring during the storm. The protocols were immediately communicated to field staff, personal protective equipment was distributed, along with a clear message that further participation was strictly voluntary. With monitoring teams still in the field as the stay-at-home order was issued, our teams were able to safely and successfully wrap up the monitoring event in the following days.

Between the conclusion of second monitoring event and the third and final storm event, CDC guidelines became clearer and more comprehensive, and included the addition of face coverings or masks. Formal internal SOPs were developed, masks were procured or made at home by staff, hand sanitizer was procured where available and produced internally, and other required PPE was distributed to staff. The forecast storm delivered over five inches of rain throughout the week, including approximately three and a half inches in twenty-four hours. The high amount of rain led to widespread flash flooding, with several monitored creeks exceeding their banks. Several whole sampling stations were threatened with destruction and were moved to dry ground or moved to elevated platforms quickly constructed as the waters rose to waist deep. Clear communication and stringent COVID-related safety guidelines and PPE allowed Wood to continue sampling an extremely challenging and grueling 10-day storm event while remaining safe and overcoming the health and safety challenges presented by both the field work and the virus.

This project is only one example of the impacts of a sudden and unique challenge presented by the current pandemic that no one could have envisioned in our future just 3 months ago. The presentation will incorporate photos and video showing the extreme monitoring conditions along with methods to ensure monitoring success in challenging situations. As we look to the future and uncertain path of the coronavirus, many of these protocols may shape our new monitoring normal.

Primary Speaker:
Jeremy Burns, Wood Environment & Infrastructure Solutions
Jeremy Burns is a Senior Associate Scientist and Project Manager at Wood. He has conducted water quality monitoring with a focus on field implementation and instrumentation over the past 20 years.
Supporting Speaker 1:
Alex Messina, Wood