Water will be taken for granted until the day it stops coming out of the tap: This statement explains why when Jane Smith opens up her water and sewer bill, she generally doesn’t think about what goes into operating and maintaining water lines, water treatment plants, etc. That said, a higher billing statement will certainly get her attention.
Although many industry professionals agree that water and sewer services should be priced competitively, it is not always easy to get the public to understand why their rates are going up. It is easier and quite beneficial, however, to demonstrate all the things a water provider is doing for its community in the form of various public outreach programs.
According to Sandy Buchner, laboratory chemist for the City of Grand Rapids Wastewater Treatment Plant, “With the [current] budget crisis, cities are having to do more with less. It seems that it is even more important today to inform the public about what public servants working in water/wastewater are doing for them and their community.”
It is no surprise that some water and sewer service providers around the country have actively stepped up their educational efforts and public outreach programs.
Unique Partnership, Unique Outreach
For example, Water & Wastes Digest (WWD) learned that the San Diego County Water Authority (SDCWA), a water wholesale provider serving 24 member agencies within San Diego County, has a unique partnership with the Imperial Irrigation District (IID), a water agency 130 miles east of San Diego. The two agencies have been partners in the nation’s largest agriculture to urban water transfer. Additionally, the SDCWA and IID have partnered with the state of California to build a section of an 83-mile-long Imperial County-based water channel, the All-American Canal. The project will conserve 67,700 acre-ft of water per year, the majority of which will serve as a water source for the authority.
In order to address concerns about the impact of the transfer, in 2005, the SDCWA rolled out a unique outreach program in Imperial County. The goal was to open an office in Imperial County—outside the authority’s boundaries—and provide a full-time staff to serve as a liaison between the SDCWA, IID and the communities of Imperial County. The concept was that through an outreach program in Imperial County, the SDCWA could maintain strong communication with IID and the community at large, be as transparent as possible in moving forward with the complex agreements tied to the water transfer and the All-American Canal Lining Project, and have an active presence in the community.
Outreach program activities include a bimonthly Web-based newsletter, Water Updates from the Coast, which keeps Imperial County readers up to date on recent actions of the SDCWA Board of Directors and on steps San Diego is taking to control its water use and diversify water resources. These include desalination of seawater; presentations to civic groups throughout Imperial County as a way to present updates on water issues and to share information about the authority; and participation in community events and organizations to support local activities and issues.
According to the SDCWA, the outreach program is having a positive effect in strengthening the relationship between the two water agencies and benefitting both Imperial and San Diego counties. The readership of the newsletter is continuing to grow, and there are ongoing invitations to give presentations to civic groups. Local organizations and area committees in Imperial County also have welcomed the authority as a participating member. Five years after the outreach effort began, the SDCWA remains committed to maintaining a presence in Imperial County as a way to maintain and continue to build strong relations.
Helping a Community Help Itself
The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD), managed by Veolia Water North America, is a regional agency that provides water reclamation and flood management services for more than 1.1 million people in 28 communities. The district currently is involved in several community outreach programs.
For example, the MMSD is paying for the disposal of medication collected during Medicine Collection Day, held on May 8, 2010. The program urges residents in Milwaukee, Kenosha, Ozaukee and Waukesha counties to bring prescription and over-the-counter medication to a designated drop-off area. The program is designed to educate the public about proper disposal of medicines in order to reduce substance abuse, prevent childhood poisoning and help protect Lake Michigan.
Last year’s one-day collection netted more than 5,000 lb in Milwaukee County alone. Following federal laws, certain drugs are handed to law enforcement to be destroyed. The rest of the medicine is incinerated by Veolia Environmental Services at a federally licensed incinerator.
MMSD Public Information Manager Bill Graffin told WWD that the district is expanding the program. “This year, we’re switching gears on our collection program and have 12, soon to be 14, out of 19 police departments in Milwaukee County collecting medicine all year long. Compared to the one-day collections once a year, it makes it much easier for people to do the right thing,” Graffin said. “We’re hoping to have all 19 departments participating so we don’t have to hold the one-day collections.”
The MMSD also has a very active rain barrel program, designed to reduce the amount of storm water entering the district’s system, as a part of its Every Drop Counts campaign. The district provides a list of retail and nonprofit organizations that promote and sell rain barrels across the sewer service area, increasing ease of purchase while spreading the message of how all in the community can be active in improving water quality in their region.
“We’re selling MMSD rain barrels at about 20 locations throughout the Milwaukee area, including Whole Foods and the Milwaukee County Zoo. To date, we have sold 13,943 rain barrels,” Graffin said.
Although public outreach does not directly result in additional funding, it plays an huge role in educating the public regarding the importance of water and sewer infrastructure. Improving public knowledge today is a step toward gaining public support for infrastructure decisions tomorrow.
SIDEBAR: Further Outreach in the Industry
New Water Environment Research Foundation Report on Public Communication – Perceptions and Early Communication Tools. This report identifies effective public outreach guidance and tools to support asset management decisions. It is available at www.werf.org.
More information on the MMSD public outreach programs is available at http://v3.mmsd.com.
More information on the SDCWA is available at www.sdcwa.org.