The Yucaipa Valley Water District (YVWD) Board met on July 21. General Manager Joe Zoba recommended the board consider authorizing the general manager to execute a contract with Biobot Analytics for Fiscal Year 2020-21 for a sum not to exceed $97,920 and adopt Resolution No. 2020-36, to conduct an epidemiological study of COVID-19 at the Wochholz Regional Water Recycling Facility.

In light of rising public concern over COVID-19, the drinking water supplied by the Yucaipa Valley Water District is clean, safe and reliable. The SARS-CoV-2 virus has no impact on the quality or supply of tap water. The use of high pressure membranes at the Yucaipa Valley Regional Water Filtration Facility and the Wochholz Regional Water Recycling Facility have been proved to be an effective additional barrier to viruses and various undesirable chemical molecules. Additionally, the Yucaipa Valley Water District uses chlorine to disinfect the water before it enters the distribution system to protect against microorganisms such as bacteria, viruses, fungus, and other micro-organisms.

Thousands of water quality tests are done annually to ensure the drinking water meets rigorous drinking water standards. Analyses both on-site and state-certified laboratories for independent validation are performed annually. YVWD has an extensive back flow prevention program where water cannot flow back into the drinking system from properties that may pose a contamination risk.

A microfiltration and reverse osmosis systems have been installed to further protect drinking water and recycled water from bacteriological impacts.

Recent studies show epidemiological public health monitoring of sewer treatment plants can provide beneficial information for decision making and establishing public policy related to virus outbreaks. Data about the COVID-19 virus found in sewage can warn of an outbreak up to seven days before clinical testing shows signs of a spike, say wastewater epidemiologist.

“You’re seeing it (viruses) in sewage before people are really showing the symptoms, days and weeks before,” said Eileen White, director of waste water for EBMUD (East Bay Municipal Utility District), a utility that serves 685,000 households in San Francisco’s East Bay area.

Zoba said, “We have been able to expand our plant out and actually do quite a few new things with it rather than just treating the sewage for the community.”

“What we are looking at now is expanding it out even further, providing additional services, power production with a generating power facility, recycle water as we have reverse osmosis with the brine line, and biosolids which go down to one stop for reuse … Today we have the concept of community epidemiology and how that actually works,” said Zoba.

Dr. Mariana Matus, co-founder and chief executive of Biobot Analytic a Massachusetts-based company, said, “Wastewater data that you measure today is giving an early warning indicating how many new COVID-19 cases you will see in that community in about seven days out. Wastewater gives you that window of opportunity.”

COVID-19 is shed in the stool of those infected with the virus and ultimately enters into the YVWD sewer system. By sampling the sewer system, the district will gain a valuable insight into the health of the entire sewer service population and is a cost-effective means of testing tens of thousands of people at once. People that are asymptomatic or otherwise not sick enough to be tested can still may be spreading the virus and can be quantified by this testing.

The testing performed detects only the genetic material from the virus and is not able to detect whether the virus is still alive in the wastewater. The data analysis will show a few things including quantity trend analysis and be able to estimate the burden of COVID-19 in the community.

“We are one of the few treatment plants that have a reverse osmosis system,” said Zoba. “Anything we do for an epidemiological study would be from the raw water. Even though we are purifying the water extremely well, compared to most treatment plants, the studies of what we are looking for are in that raw wastewater that is coming in.”

Biobot did a timeline viral dynamic study where some of the virus loads were looked at early and how the virus loads came into the wastewater plant and were detectable in the sewage a couple of weeks prior to the actual cases that were detected and identified into the community.

Zoba said, “The process is pretty simple. It is very similar to how COVID-19 is detected in individuals today … What the district would get out of this study is we would start seeing a quantitative trend analysis … This gives us a chance to really get into the Yucaipa/Calimesa area to come up with some unique data points for it.”

Director Dennis Miller asked if there was a way to get reimbursement from the state and potential liability issues involved with this that could be used against YVWD.

Legal counsel David Wysocki said, “I haven’t heard of any other agency facing a liability exposure for information gathering purposes … All we are doing is gathering information. We are not treating and we are not a health medical provider. I don’t really see how the district would have exposure for liability or what it would be.”

Director Lonni Granlund stated she was very excited about this. “I think it is a new way of detecting viruses and diseases and that if we really do this and see how it works, and do it through this pandemic, maybe in the future, we will have information to help others before they get out of hand.”

Director Jay Bogh was against it and said, “I don’t see how this helps my rate payers or people in my division … I really can’t see the advantage to this from the standpoint of Yucaipa Valley rate payers.”

Director Joyce McIntire said, “I was so excited about this. I thought it was a wonderful tool and knowledge to have and it is but is it the right time to do this, it may not be.”

President Chris Mann said, “I really see both sides to this and I am kind of torn on it frankly.”

Granlund made a motion to move forward with this study. McIntire seconded the motion, but it did not pass with Mann, Bogh and Miller voting no.

The item will be revisited at later date.

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