FAQs on COVID-19 and Water Quality

Columbia Riverkeeper's Water Quality Director, Lorri Epstein, discusses questions around water quality and COVID-19, including risks to the river, and pathways for exposure.

FAQs on COVID-19 and Water Quality

Our most commonly asked question about the Columbia River is “Is it safe to swim?”. We’ve even developed projects and monitoring programs around answering this very question. In light of the current pandemic, this question is colored with concerns about COVID-19, the risks to the river, and pathways for exposure. Because this is a novel virus, new science is emerging almost daily, and much of what we do know is based on research about other coronaviruses. Using the most current research available to-date, we answered the following FAQs to help explain the impacts of COVID-19 on water quality and the Columbia River.

Watch Lorri's FAQ here or continue reading below:

What’s the difference between SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19?

Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2 or “the virus”) is the coronavirus responsible for the current pandemic. COVID-19 is the disease it causes. SARS-CoV-2 is related to other coronaviruses such as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS).

Is the virus spread through drinking water?

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the virus has not been detected in drinking water. Conventional water treatment methods such as those used by most municipal drinking water systems should remove or inactivate the virus. 

Could the virus be in the river and could I be exposed through contact with river water?

Studies of other coronaviruses find they can remain viable and infectious in freshwater at least temporarily. However, we still don’t understand what happens to SARS-CoV-2 upon exposure to environmental conditions like sunlight, water, and air, so more research is needed. At this point, we don’t know if the virus that causes COVID-19 can be transmitted through contact with river water or contact with sewage that may be in the water, but the CDC expects a low risk of exposure through water. 

There is no evidence showing anyone has gotten COVID-19 through drinking water, recreational water, or wastewater. The risk of COVID-19 transmission through water is expected to be low.

Does the virus go into sewage and wastewater?

While most of the virus is shed through the respiratory tract, studies show the stool of some infected patients does have high levels of virus RNA. What we don’t know is if the virus is still infectious after passing through the human digestive tract. In order for the virus to be infectious, it needs an intact outer envelope. The fecal tests using polymerase chain reaction (PCR) detect the virus RNA but do not distinguish between infectious and non-infectious virus. 

The current belief, based on the behavior of other coronaviruses, is that discharge from properly treated wastewater is considered low risk for transmission. The expectation is that wastewater treatment plants can adequately control viruses, but confirmation for this particular virus is still needed. That said, untreated and undertreated wastewater can and does make its way into the Columbia River through leaks, accidental discharges, combined sewer overflows, and leaking or unmaintained septic tanks.

What if untreated wastewater spills into the river?

Undertreated wastewater and raw sewage contain many harmful viruses and pathogens. Although researchers don’t currently know if people can contract COVID-19 from exposure to fecal contamination in recreational waters, if there is a spill, COVID-19 would be just one additional health risk to be concerned about. There are many other viruses and pathogens that pose a known risk to human health. These are a concern no matter what we eventually learn about the viability of SARS-CoV-2 in freshwater environments or sewage.

I’ve heard about sewage surveillance, what’s that?

Studies, including one out of the Netherlands, have looked for virus signals in sewage influent at wastewater treatment plants and found that this type of surveillance could be a helpful complement to health surveillance. The Dutch study detected virus signals in sewage of two communities even before cases were reported by community health surveillance. The studies show potential for using sewage surveillance as an early warning system and a tool to help understand virus circulation.

Can the water quality monitoring that Riverkeeper does detect coronavirus and help protect human health? 

Riverkeeper’s water quality monitoring at recreational beaches is already monitoring for health risks associated with sewage contamination. We know sewage and stormwater carry many harmful viruses and pathogens. Riverkeeper tests for E.coli bacteria which is a fecal indicator. It’s a measure of sewage contamination which allows us to assess the health risks associated with swimming at a specific beach. So while our current E.coli monitoring does not detect coronavirus, it does offer an indication of health risks associated with recreational water contact. 

Read more:
About Water Quality Monitoring Program

One of the most common questions we get asked at Columbia Riverkeeper: “Is it safe to swim in the Columbia?”