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Delivering Critical Water Service through COVID-19

 Critical Water Service through COVID-19
Like other municipalities around the world, COVID-19 has made an impact across the City of Ottawa. Our 1 million residents have adapted to stay-at-home and social distancing requests, non-essential businesses have been shut down temporarily, and public health officials continue to monitor the situation as the pandemic evolves. But thankfully, our infection and death rates have been relatively low compared to other major metropolitan areas around the world.

As the City department tasked with billing water services, property tax and maintaining our billing systems, our team has had to adapt as well. Here are a few of our observations—and recommendations—for municipalities and utilities looking to stay afloat during the COVID-19 crisis.
  • Ensure business continuity. Like many utilities, we had to transform into a remote work staff almost overnight. But there are certain job duties we have that must be done in the office, so we set up a rotating schedule to minimize the number of people in the office and to offset the potential of the entire department contracting the coronavirus. We have also taken necessary precautions with regards to sanitation, distancing and health/symptom monitoring.
  • Watch for changes in consumption patterns. With so many businesses across Ottawa shut down, we have seen our commercial usage rates drop significantly. But we’ve also seen a rise in residential water use. And although these two changes haven’t completely offset one another, we know there is a much greater emphasis on residential consumption and essential businesses. Our advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) system helps us closely monitor the parts of our delivery system that are most heavily used at the moment. AMI has also helped us track consumption in commercial buildings—like arenas, business parks and hotels—that are underutilized right now. With hourly data, we can monitor flow in buildings that are effectively vacant, identify potential leaks and send crews to investigate.
  • Prioritize field work. With the insights provided by AMI, we have been able to prioritize our field crews and do the most important work where and when it is needed most. In addition, with meter replacements and home visits on hold, we have put an emphasis on installing meters and turning on service for new construction.
  • Keep an eye to the budget. Our budget is tied to revenue from the City—and as a part of the municipal government, we can’t carry a deficit from one year to the next so we need to be extremely conscious of our budget and how COVID-19 is impacting not only our department but the whole City. We have open lines of communication with other departments, check in regularly, and are making sure that any work we do is prioritized, justified and in-line with our budget.
  • Be a strong community partner. Even with challenges to our overall budget, the City, like many others, has introduced programs to help give our residents financial relief during this time: we’ve paused collections activities, halted interest and fees, and extended due dates for things like property taxes into the late fall.

Although the COVID-19 crisis has shifted our focus for the time being, we remain committed to making sure our hospitals, urgent care facilities and other essential businesses get the water service they need to stay open for the public. Learn more about the City of Ottawa and our COVID-19 response here.