It’s been six months since Governor Newsom ordered all Californians to stay at home to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
It was unclear back in March just how devastating the coronavirus pandemic would be. Schools and businesses announced they would reopen in three weeks – remember that? Six months later, it’s still unclear how and when this emergency will end.
In an emergency, our job at Helix Water District is to keep the water on — for first responders, doctors and nurses, and everyone helping someone stay safe or recover. When Governor Newsom issued the stay at home order, we assembled Helix’s executive team, human resources, information systems and risk and safety managers, and the public affairs supervisor into a coronavirus response team to meet weekly and respond to the ever-changing conditions.
To protect public health, our board of directors suspended on March 18 all water shutoffs and late fees. Then, in response to exploding unemployment levels locally and across the country, the board voted on April 1 to freeze water rates.
Our first priority in March was to get the word out to customers that their tap was safe to drink, based on Centers for Disease Control findings that coronavirus spread through air, not water. We posted four articles on our website and social media, broadcast a recorded phone message to all customers, sent a bilingual email to all customers, and were the subject of stories in the San Diego Union Tribune and the Times of San Diego.
Water Treatment and System Operations
We maintained full compliance with federal and state water quality standards over the last six months. We planned for emergencies like this one, and our operators have the technical qualifications to provide back-up in an emergency.
As they say in sports, we have a deep bench. While normal operations require six treatment plant operators and four distribution system operators, we have seven additional operations staff certified and proficient in treatment plant operations, and three additional staff certified and ready to operate the district’s water distribution system.
To protect customers, the operations department put on hold all maintenance-related system shutdowns, and deployed a water truck and additional notification for all emergency shutdowns.
To maintain our ability to respond to emergencies during and after business hours, including water main breaks and broken hydrants, we implemented a rotation schedule that protects employees from coronavirus. Some employees worked from home, and some reported directly to the field each day.
Engineering divided their employees into two categories. We authorized field engineering staff to work remotely from vehicles. This ensured reduced exposure but allowed for near-normal response to field engineering and construction activities.
And we quickly equipped office staff with computers for working from home, allowing design work and normal office duties to continue. The department set-up Zoom and GoTo Meeting accounts so staff meetings and design and construction progress meetings could continue.
In less than a week, we reconfigured our phone system and customer billing system to allow our customer service representatives to rotate – with half in the office and half working from home. We answered all customer calls and we maintained billing review and accuracy.
Finance and accounting collaborated with the district’s financial consultant and performed the analysis the board needed to vote with confidence to freeze water rates. The finance team also completed our fiscal year 2020-21 budget, after conducting a 5-hour, virtual budget workshop with the board on Zoom.
We would like to thank our customers for their patience and understanding over this past six months. We are working to keep each other safe, so that you have the water you need to stay safe.
Though our facilities are closed, we are here. Please call Customer Service at 619-466-0585 if you need assistance.