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WaterOperator.org Blog

Articles in support of small community water and wastewater operators.

Citizen Academies Teach About Critical Water & Wastewater Issues

Citizen Academies Teach About Critical Water & Wastewater Issues
While some water systems host open houses or group tours periodically, citizen academies offer a more intensive learning experience for residents. This experience can leverage a deeper understanding, and support, from the local community for the important and often underappreciated work operators do to protect public health. Residents, in turn, get a rare behind-the-scenes opportunity to learn about water and wastewater issues first-hand and experience how a water utility operates in real-time as it overcomes today's challenges.

Citizen academies come in all sizes and shapes. Spartanburg Water in South Carolina hosts a 6-week interactive series at the public library with sessions on source water, water quality and asset management as well as field trips to local plants. In Scottsdale, Arizona, a 5-week course takes participants inside the water facility to view demonstrations of daily operations, lab work and water main repairs. In Indiana, the town of Carmel organizes a Citizens Utility Academy that provides insight into the responsibilities and operations of not only water & wastewater, but also trash, recycling and hazardous waste disposal. 

The benefits to water systems are numerous. Citizen academies offer utilities the opportunity to connect with their residents in such a way that these residents become informal ambassadors for the utility. In a sense, this connection creates trust between the utility and citizens. In addition, these academies can inspire residents to volunteer to serve on advisory boards or utility committees, or otherwise serve as a liaison between the public and the utility.

Interested in exploring the possibility of a citizen's academy for your water system? This website from the University of North Carolina School of Government includes a "how-to" program component guide as well as case studies and other resources. 

The Importance of Customer Outreach

The Importance of Customer Outreach
The more a utility communicates with its ratepayers, the more the ratepayers agree with community and water leaders, a new study finds. In fact, constituents who received water‐related information from utility mailings or served on committees and boards had perceptions that were more aligned with leaders' concerns. This is why cutting outreach could be a big mistake for utilities of all sizes. 

Another study finding is that there is a real disconnect between the concerns of customers and that of water providers. Residents showed most concern about potential water shortages and high water bills, while their leaders were most concerned about deteriorating local water infrastructure. This was the case no matter where cities were located or what their water source was. 

From their end, residents have a good reason to be concerned about their water rates. The labor department has released findings that show water rates have increased 5.5% on average each year over the past decade, three times faster than the rate of inflation. At the same time, water utilities are feeling the squeeze while trying to provide high quality water with aging or inadequate infrastructure. 

This disconnect is why it is crucial for utilities to talk to, and listen to, their ratepayers. Giving the public a voice in major decisions and communicating critical issues results in decisions that are more effective and sustainable. And that is good news for everyone. 

Interested in outreach resources? Type in "outreach" in our document database on WaterOperator.org or you can check out this recent listing.

Featured Video: Serious Play

Featured Video: Serious Play
If you have kids, you might be very familiar with the shapes and structures that can be built out of Lego blocks. Even if you don't have kids, you might be about to get a healthy dose of kids' building supplies over the holidays, as parents try to keep their kids out from underfoot. But did you know those building supplies could be used to explain complex concepts to your customers?

In this video, a conservation nonprofit demonstrates how they used colored building blocks to explain possible remediation strategies for polluted sediment in the Lower Duwamish Waterway in Seattle. Even if you're not facing this specific situation, look for ideas on how simple toys like these can be used to explain complex concepts to your board, city council, or customers. After all, everyone loves to play, don't they?



For more on communicating complex concepts to people without expertise, check out our past blog entry on Communicating Science. And if you've found a particularly effective strategy for communicating difficult water utility concepts to your board or community members, let us know!

Featured Video: Running Toilets Waste Water

Featured Video: Running Toilets Waste Water
As football season gets underway, it's a good time to revisit Denver Water's clever water conservation PSA. The video may be ten years old, but the simple concept still makes for a fun and memorable message. It's a good reminder that even though water utilities play a vital role in public health and quality of life, that doesn't mean we can't sometimes have a little fun. Happy Friday!



Featured Video: Communicating Science

As a water utility professional, you probably spend at least some time talking to people about your job. Whether you're explaining operations to a utility board, breaking down a bill for a customer, or just chatting at a barbeque, eventually, someone is going to want to know how and why you do what you do. For some of you, this might be an easy task--you're an outgoing educator with a passion for your job. For others though, getting asked questions on the spot makes your mind go blank and your palms go sweaty. Still others may be happy to talk, but have a hard time getting people interested in what you have to say. Trying to help people understand a topic as complex as water and wastewater treatment can be a challenge, particularly when you're immersed in the topic yourselves. Add in the financial challenges some small systems face, and opening up meaningful communication with your community can feel even more daunting.



Scientists face similar challenges. Like water operators, scientists have a lot of knowledge about complex fields with specialized jargon. The work they do may not be obvious to people outside the profession, just like utility operations can feel hidden in plain sight. One resource that helps scientists learn how to communicate with the press and other non-scientists is the Alda-Kavli Center for Science Communication. In this video, co-founder Alan Alda talks about his inspiration for starting the Center and some of the basic communication principles he keeps in mind:



To read about water utility outreach programs, visit our document database and type "public relations" (without the quote marks) into the Keyword search field, then click "Retrieve Documents." Being open with your community about the challenges and successes at their utility can help you gain public support, even when you need to undertake big projects like rate hikes or infrastructure overhauls. Even if you don't have big projects looming on the horizon, taking the extra time to engage with your community can make your job more rewarding, and builds goodwill for when you do need a helping hand. If nothing else, taking some time to think about these issues ahead of time will give you some better conversation topics at your next barbeque.