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Water, Power Crews Stay in Trailers, Live at Work During Virus

May 20, 2020, 10:00 AM

A large California water and power district is sequestering crews for weeks at a time to ensure farmland is irrigated and lights stay on as the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread.

The Imperial Irrigation District, which serves low-income areas where high temperatures aren’t uncommon, began its second round of three-week shifts for workers May 16. Between 28 and 32 employees have volunteered to live at their work sites during both rounds.

Those 500 hours of life inside the gates include 12-hour work days, sleeping in trailers on the grounds, delivered meals, and multiple temperature checks.

“By the fifth day, we understood we were in it for the long haul,” said Jose Medel, a systems operations shift supervisor in Imperial’s energy department, which serves nearly 7,000 square miles and is the third largest public power utility in California.

Imperial is one of many U.S. utilities that are sequestering employees at home or keeping them on-site for weeks to avoid bringing the virus into control rooms, pumping facilities, power plants, and other areas.

Long Time in Trailers

Imperial brought in trailers for each employee who volunteered for the long shifts. They get paid for 24 hours each day, and food, water, and other needs like laundry are handled by the district, spokesman Robert Schettler said.

How many utilities are implementing or have used these extreme work shifts is unclear. The Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies and the American Public Power Association said they had anecdotal evidence, but weren’t closely tracking the numbers.

The power association, which represents about 1,900 distribution utilities, has documented instances in California, Florida, Nebraska, and New York.

Medel’s team of five started their long shift April 25 and soon converted one trailer into a hangout space where they would share meals. Lines from Bill Murray’s “Groundhog Day,” a 1993 movie where the character repeats the same day over and over, were dropped often.

“Right now already, we’re reaching temperatures of 100 degrees and air conditioning isn’t a luxury around here, it’s a necessity,” he said May 15 near the end of the shift. “We have to get the job done.”

Medel left his post the next morning, looking forward to his wife’s hot chicken soup, called caldo, despite the predicted high temperatures.

Short Showers, No Visits

For Luis Barajas, a water dispatcher, the secluded life was a bit regal, though with a tiny shower and limited water tanks.

On his second day, crews had to come fill up his trailer’s tank because he used up the water. His customary 10-minute shower whittled down to 120 seconds.

His fiancée would ask if she could come say hello through the gates or stop by, and he had to say “no” each time. Non-isolated co-workers would wave through windows into his control room because they weren’t allowed inside. In free time he watched Covid-19 cases climb in the outside world on television.

“We’re being treated almost like royalty, you know, trying to keep us from all of this going on in the world,” he said.

Barajas worked 6 p.m to 6 a.m., so he needed darkened window coverings to sleep during the day and worked out to keep off the pounds from all the delivered food. He basically slept, hit the makeshift gym, watched TV, and worked.

Imperial delivers water to nine communities and nearly 475,000 acres of farmland. Barajas’ job entails scheduling water deliveries and using technology to monitor canals filled by the mighty Colorado River. One mistake and people could get flooded.

“If someone would get sick it could wipe out the whole section,” Barajas said. “Not anybody could come in here and do the work.”

Imperial hasn’t decided if it will isolate crews after the latest group ends their shifts in June.

Isolation Elsewhere

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the largest treated water supplier in the U.S., put some workers on paid leave so they could isolate at home and swap in to take assignments if working employees got sick.

Con Edison, a power distributor serving New York City, sequestered 15 control rooms employees for four weeks, ending on May 3, spokeswoman Anne Marie Corbalis said in an email. New York Power Authority, managed by the state, also kept 85 key employees on-site.

The Sacramento Municipal Utility District, which serves California’s capital region, had about two dozen energy traders, and power and distribution system operators stay in RVs outside their offices for about three weeks, ending on May 8.

“These are highly-experienced and highly-specialized employees critical to keeping the grid operational,” Chris Capra, a spokesman for the utility district, said in an email.

To contact the reporter on this story: Emily C. Dooley at edooley@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergindustry.com; Renee Schoof at rschoof@bloombergenvironment.com

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