Since I work for the Concord Monitor, this story is Concord-specific. But I bet the situation is the same for your city.
Looking back on 2020, it’s clear that people in Concord did three things when the pandemic hit: Threw stuff out, watered the lawn and wiped down surfaces in their homes. Lots and lots of surfaces.
“Oh yes, we’ve seen a fair amount more of the flushable wipes,” said Daniel Driscoll, superintendent of the Concord wastewater treatment plant. The city’s sewer system hasn’t seen any of the system-clogging masses called “fatbergs” caused by stuck-at-home people flushing too many of the wrong things – especially grease and fats poured down the sink by novice cooks, hence the term – but that doesn’t mean it’s been clear sailing.
“Even though we can move (the wipes) through the system and can handle them, they still cause problems,” said Driscoll. No matter what the product label says, he’d prefer that you threw out wipes and other “flushable” items rather than putting them into the sewer system.
I touched base with Driscoll because as we prepare to enter Year Two Of The COVID Era, I wondered what the city’s hidden infrastructure says about how we have reacted.
Some of my expectations were wrong. To my surprise, Driscoll said the city hasn’t seen much if any increase in total volumes coming through the plant even though people were stuck at home and using the facilities more.
Presumably, he said, this is partly because the city’s retail use declined even as home use increased. “We ran most of the summer at 2.5 to 3 million gallons a day, that’s typical.”
Another factor is that most of the biggest wastewater customers in the city weren’t very affected by the pandemic, including the state prison, the Wheelabrator trash-to-energy plant, and the Hood dairy plant.
At the other end of the city’s water system, things were much more variable, thanks to the overlap of COVID-19 and the drought.
“The year was bizarre,” said Marco Philippon, superintendent of the city’s water treatment plant.
Philippon calculated average usage in each month of the year from 2016 to 2019 then compared it to 2020. Again surprisingly to me, the start of the pandemic did little: At first Concord actually used slightly less water: daily average was actually down in April, from 3.8 million gallons a day in past years to 3.3 million gallons in 2020, and was average in May.
Then came June. Average water usage soared that month to a whopping 6.2 million gallons a day, which is 25% higher than normal for June.
Was this due to the drought, which took hold in June? Not entirely.
“Those are average day numbers. If you look at the peak day, it was 7.89 million gallons. To put that into perspective, in 2016 – remember the 2016 drought? – the peak day that year was only 6.8 million,” said Philippon.
In other words, COVID-19 seems to have increased drought-caused water usage by an extra million gallons a day, or roughly 14%. People weren’t flushing that water, either, since the sewer system volumes didn’t increase.
“Either we had some pretty significant leaks, which we didn’t, or all kinds of people were establishing lawns because they’re home,” he said. “Whenever I would go out you couldn’t get near a flower center.”
The summer saw continued above-normal usage compared to the five-year average: 4% higher in July, 16% higher in August, 8% higher in September.
But when cooler weather arrived, the trend reversed. October was normal while city water use in November and December were down 10% to 12%. Philippon says that’s almost certainly due to the way the shutdown has affected retail.
“The restaurants – we thought we would see an uptick with all the additional cleaning but not really,” he said.
Phillipon says that when the COVID-19 shutdown came, everybody feared for their budgets, but summer changed that.
Annual revenue for the system, which has about 12,000 connects, is budgeted at $6.4 million for this fiscal year, which runs from July to June. So far income is running ahead of projections, particularly for the wastewater system due to a quirk that annoyed many homeowners when fall bills arrived.
Homes have water meters but not sewage meters so the bill for wastewater is based on how much water you take in, the idea being that it will all end up going down the drain. For people watering their new lawns and shrubs, however, that incorrect assumption led to complaints about unfairly high sewer bills. It is possible to have a “deduct meter” installed which will separate usage of water and wastewater, although Philippon says not many people have gotten one.
As for solid, rather than, liquid waste, the pandemic showed that we’ve accumulated a lot of unneeded things.
Beginning in April, the first full month after Gov. Sununu’s stay-at-home order, the amount of trash and recycling left at Concord curbsides soared. The numbers were skewed by the eight-week suspension of the pay-as-you-throw program, which shifted recyclables into trash, but the results are still amazing.
In May, for example, the city collected 627 tons of trash, the most ever, and 209 tons of recyclables, which combine for a staggering 30% more than the total collected in May of 2019. All summer the totals were way up, some 15% more in June and July, although they seem to have settled down by fall to roughly the same as last year, perhaps because all of Concord’s attics and basements and garages have been cleaned out.
We’re not alone. The Solid Waste Association of North America says residential waste nationwide saw a 20% spike in the spring and overall were up by at least 7% during the year.