During the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic, having clean water and safe treated wastewater is essential to public health. After all, one of the best ways to keep yourself safe is by washing your hands and you cannot do that without safe water. Our water and wastewater operators keep the water running even through adversity but have certainly faced challenges and staffing difficulties too.
Because of social distancing and "shelter in place" precautions, operators have to be safe but resourceful. These essential workers do not have the option to work from home in most cases; so what happens when operators cannot come to work because they are high risk or already sick? Additional precautions must be taken to make sure our water and wastewater facilities have ample coverage.
Kansas Department of Health and Environment Public Supply Section quickly recognized the need for a pool of qualified operators who could provide support to drinking water systems during this crisis. In a matter of just weeks, they were able to establish and implement an emergency reciprocity agreement to allow operators to cross state lines and work in Kansas.
"We knew we had to respond quickly if water or wastewater facilities lost an operator," said Cathy Tucker-Vogel, Kansas Public Water Supply Section Chief and Vice President of the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators (ASDWA). "There was no push back even, we knew what we had to do, and we made it happen."
Tucker-Vogel initiated conversation with ASDWA and connected with neighboring states, such as Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, and Oklahoma to work together on this initiative. She developed a template for a reciprocity agreement and provided it to states to customize for their own needs.
ASDWA president and Water Quality Division Director of the Oklahoma Department of Environment Department of Environmental Quality. Shellie Chard, worked closely with Tucker-Vogel on this initiative and Oklahoma has been an early adopter.
"Once we moved past some initial reluctance to change, the process to implement a reciprocity agreement was not so difficult," said Chard. "Our first reciprocity application came from an operator in Texas and we were able to grant reciprocity in less than a workday. So, the process works well for us!"
Because water and wastewater classifications vary, an important step in establishing a reciprocity agreement is working with neighboring states to understand differences and similarities.
"For anyone considering expanding reciprocity during COVID-19, start by reaching out to your neighboring states," said Tucker-Vogel. "Then they know you're interested, and you can work together to do a classification process across states that can be included in a reciprocity policy." Kansas and Oklahoma both include classification outlines in their policies to make criteria for reciprocity easy to understand.
The emergency reciprocity agreements for Oklahoma and Kansas are set through the end of 2020, but as COVID-19 is ever evolving, it may be something that could extend for a longer period if needed. While credential standardization and global reciprocity do not exist today, who knows what the long-term impacts of reciprocity might include. One thing is for certain, it is only by working together and supporting each other that we can all make real positive impact.