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Long Island providers: Drinking water not endangered by coronavirus

Long Island water providers are seeking to reassure

Long Island water providers are seeking to reassure the public that their tap water is safe and will continue to be available amid the coronavirus outbreak. Newsday reporter Cecilia Dowd spoke with Stanley Carey, superintendent of the Massapequa Water District. Credit: Newsday / Yeong-Ung Yang

There's no need to stockpile bottled water, officials say.  

Long Island water providers are seeking to reassure the public that their tap water is safe — and will continue to be available — amid the coronavirus outbreak that has emptied grocery store shelves of many daily staples.

The chlorine that all local water districts must already use to kill bacteria and other pathogens ensures that the COVID-19 virus cannot infect the drinking supply, the officials said.

And any spike in residential usage from mass home isolations and increased hand washing has no impact on overall capacity, they added, noting that districts’ stock of disinfectant is not currently in danger of running short.

“You will always have a public water supply available,” said Dennis Kelleher of the Long Island Water Conference, a group representing area water providers.

The only caution he offered: If the pandemic stretches well into the summer, when peak water usage occurs, water districts may have to ask for a limit on customers’ lawn irrigation to ensure they have enough chlorine to meet demand.

But that would only be the case if there is an unexpected problem in the supply chain.

“Everything we’re hearing so far is that there’s no problem,” Kelleher said.

The Water Conference arranged a call with more than 50 Nassau and Suffolk water providers Monday to discuss the issues that may arise in the coming weeks and months. This included protecting district workers by reducing many office functions and public interactions. Contingencies are in place in case of a confirmed coronavirus diagnosis within one of the water providers.

In the Massapequa Water District, for example, superintendent Stan Carey has split his essential field personnel into two groups of six working from different locations, ensuring that if someone is infected, there remains staff free from quarantine.

Carey also reduced the capacity of nonessential staff in the office by half, halted public office hours and employees’ home visits and canceled upcoming district meetings.

The Suffolk County Water Authority, which serves more than 1 million customers, has stopped all nonemergency home visits.

With nearly 600 employees spread in locations from Melville to Montauk, it has sufficient coverage to handle positive coronavirus cases among employees, said Chief Executive Jeffrey Szabo.

The authority has also been in contact with its vendors for chlorine and other water treatment supplies and anticipates no problems meeting demand in coming months.

The state Department of Health, in a statement Monday, said COVID-19 has not been detected in drinking water. "Public water systems utilize multiple steps in their treatment process that physically remove, disinfect and/or chemically inactivate viruses, bacteria and other microorganisms from our drinking water,” the department said in a statement.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency recently issued a statement — similar to one released by the World Health Organization — that characterized the coronavirus risk to public water supplies as low, based on current evidence.

Still, officials are used to seeing residents buy bottled water when there is an emergency.

“Regrettably, it’s a normal reaction when there’s a crisis at hand, whether it be a hurricane or storm — and now with a global pandemic — where the first thing people think about is, ‘I need bottled water,’” said Szabo. “The truth is, in Suffolk County, if you’re receiving public drinking water from us, you’ve never been without service.”

Coronavirus concerns come as industrial contamination of Long Island’s sole source aquifer has long created distrust of the area’s drinking supply. Though water providers say that all known contaminants are removed to state and federal standards, this long-standing dynamic only heightens residents’ demand for bottled water in emergency situations.

“We’ve never been supportive of people wasting their money on bottled water,” Carey said. “But if it makes people feel comfortable or more relaxed, we’re not going to tell them not to do it.”

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