COVID Wastewater Testing - A Case Study

The discovery that the SARS-CoV-2 (the virus which causes the disease known as COVID-19) genetic signature can linger in environments deemed unhospitable to COVID-19 led to the initial practice of testing feces for its ribonucleic acid (RNA). RNA can be removed and analyzed during a small time window after entering the wastewater system.

Early in the pandemic, wastewater testing had several clear conceptual advantages over existing strategies to predict potentially infected areas and mitigate the virus’s spread. Initially, there was a scarcity of nasal tests in some regions that had not had an outbreak and were considered lower priority for test-kit distribution. Second, this wastewater testing method circumvented the problem of delayed public health statistics produced due to the virus’s sometimes asymptomatic properties. Scientists working in the Netherlands, for example, validated the concept when they confirmed the presence of SARS-CoV-2 RNA in samples from a local wastewater treatment plant collected on February 6th, 2020, before it was known to be in the community. The primary intent and benefit of wastewater surveillance is the potential ability for public health officials to track the virus’s geospatial spread.

In 2020, the Chair of the Technical Committee for the Washington Association of Sewer and Water Districts (WASWD) asked PACE to research and evaluate the viability of funding opportunities for Washington State community wastewater systems to participate in this surveillance practice.

PACE researched and evaluated COVID-19 specific government grants, federal and private research grants, Washington State agency funding, and options for partnership or collaboration with public research universities. Our team evaluated funding options and narrowed our findings to 12 opportunities with relevant background, eligibility, and terms of funding usage.

Two CARES fund allocating agencies were explored for regional use: Washington State Department of Commerce (DOC) and the US Economic Development Agency (EDA). PACE determined that administrative coordination and collaboration challenges between special purpose districts would be complex, making this funding avenue not viable for establishing a sustained and uniform regional wastewater testing program.

Colorado State University and the Metropolitan State University of Denver partnered with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to launch a federally funded one-year wastewater surveillance pilot program. We explored public agency funding for establishing a similar state-wide wastewater testing program with the Department of Ecology (Ecology) and Department of Health (DOH).

PACE concluded that partnering with an academic research team would be the most promising avenue with limited funding options since academic groups are most likely to be awarded research grants.

Locality is a significant factor in establishing partnerships between community wastewater systems and academic research teams for this application. PACE discovered cost and data reliability limitations when considering transporting samples to a lab. The transporting of samples to labs was cost-prohibitive for wastewater utilities away from the testing lab sites due to the small window of time deemed viable to pull and analyze samples.

Based on proximity and current advances in research, the University of Washington (UW) appears to be the most logical and viable research partner for Puget Sound wastewater utilities. UW environmental and occupational health microbiology specialist Dr. Scott Meschke is a leading wastewater testing researcher.

When we presented our findings on opportunities to WASWD Technology Committee Chair, our research suggested that solid funding opportunities remain sparse and largely insufficient for intended activities. However, the potential for funding opportunities may emerge, contingent upon the evolving state of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Do you need help with funding, planning, feasibilities studies, or permitting on your next project? Reach out to Paul Weller, Planning Manager, at 425.827.2014 to learn how PACE can help your next project.