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WaterOperator.org Blog

Articles in support of small community water and wastewater operators.

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.

Featured Video: Freddy the Fish

If April showers have arrived at your utility, then stormwater topics are probably at the forefront of your mind---and your customers' minds too. This makes it a great moment for public education. There are things utilities can do to mitigate stormwater quality, but nothing works quite as well as having your community pitch in to clean up the watershed. This week's video presents basic practices that improve stormwater quality, in terms aimed at your youngest consumers. Freddy the Fish focuses on reducing litter, picking up dog poop, and eliminating storm sewer dumping, and combines these messages with animated and live-action video and brief singalongs. The video would be a particularly good fit for presentations to young school-age children, which in turn can be a great way to engage your community.

For more stormwater public outreach materials, search our document database using the category Stormwater and the type Factsheets/Case Studies. You might also be interested in the EPA's video on stormwater (for adults) here.

Featured Video: Will It Flush?

With the holidays coming up, a lot of your customers may be getting particularly creative with their flushing activities. After all, for a lot of us the holidays mean a lot of hectic activity and a house full of guests. When the house is full, the trash is full, and the bathroom's getting worked overtime, sometimes standards can relax a bit. And who can blame them? A lot of products do say "flushable," right there on the label.

If you think your customers could use some extra information on how several commonly-flushed products actually behave once they're out of sight, this video might help. In it, Pre-Treatment Technician Tracy Stevens from the City of Spokane Department of Wastewater Management uses a jar test setup to demonstrate the dangers to sewers and wastewater pumps posed by facial tissues, flushable wipes, dental floss, Q-Tips, feminine hygiene products, and flushable kitty litter. If you need to give someone a refresher on the flushable, this video could be a great place to start.

For more on utilities' efforts to fight flushables and fatbergs, search "flushable" (without the quote marks) in the keyword filter box of our document database. The City of Portland also has a list of items not to flush or put down your sink:

  • disposable diapers
  • tampons and tampon applicators
  • sanitary napkins
  • cotton balls and swabs
  • mini or maxi pads
  • condoms
  • cleaning wipes of any kind
  • facial tissue
  • bandages and bandage wrappings
  • automotive fluids
  • paint, solvents, sealants and thinners
  • poisons and hazardous waste
  • cooking grease 

Educate Decision Makers With Help From RCAP

Google “drinking water” or “wastewater,” and you’re sure to find a growing list of news articles about lead safety concerns, the recent PFOA and PFOS advisory, nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, and our crumbling infrastructure. The weight and fervor of these public discussions may concern some who grapple to protect our drinking water and environment. But increased attention has its benefits. It could mean your board members and other community decision makers would be more receptive to learning about your operations and operational needs. And that’s an opportunity you don’t want to miss.

Last year, the Rural Community Assistance Partnership released two video series designed to help leaders in small, rural communities make more informed decisions about drinking water and wastewater operations, maintenance, and expansion. Each video spends roughly 2-4 minutes walking the audience through a different technical step in the drinking water or wastewater treatment process. Click on the links below to watch the videos.

Wastewater Treatment

  1. Introduction
  2. Collection system
  3. Preliminary treatment
  4. Primary treatment
  5. Secondary treatment
  6. Solids and sludge handling
  7. Effluent disinfection
  8. Effluent disposal

Drinking Water Systems

  1. Introduction
  2. Raw water intake
  3. Pre-settlement and pre-treatment
  4. Static mixers and flash chambers
  5. Sedimentation and filtration
  6. Distribution systems

Beyond these series, sharing the RCAP video The Importance of an Operator in a Community’s Water System with your governing body will provide insight into the day-to-day work of an operator and the importance of that role.  

Click here to browse these videos in a playlist.

To find more videos from RCAP and other technical assistance providers, visit our Documents Database and click Videos in the Type category. And subscribe to the WaterOperator.org newsletter to get featured videos and other resources sent straight to your inbox.  

So You've Got a Website...Now What?

In an earlier post, we talked a little about the value of having a website—or webpage on a city site—to connect with rate payers. Getting the site up is one step, albeit a huge one. Now you face the challenge of driving traffic to the site or page. After all, the most informative site might as well not exist if no one knows it’s there.

Marketing a website may sound like a full time job, but it doesn’t have to be. There are a handful of things you can do to raise awareness and promote use without adding much to your already lengthy “to do” lists.

  • Add a teaser to your email signature. Something as simple as “Visit WaterOperator.org for more information” with a hyperlink is enough. Emails get forwarded, copied, and otherwise shared. You never know who may be reading and clicking.   
  • Create a bill insert informing rate payers about the site. If resources allow it, consider including refrigerator magnets or something similar with the url and your logo to serve as a more lasting reminder.
  • Share website information on your utility’s Facebook, Twitter, or other social media accounts. If you’re not active on social media—or even if you are—reach out to whoever runs the accounts for your city or town to let them know the site is available as a resource. Whatever you do, don’t forget to include the link.
  • Participate in Facebook groups and Google Plus communities. This is a particularly good strategy if your own social media accounts don’t have a lot of followers. Perhaps your community has a Facebook community for parents, university students, seniors, gardeners, or more. Ask to join these groups and start directing people to relevant information on road closures, water conservation, or whatever else the group may find useful.
  • Offer to write a guest post for a city or community blog. By including your website in the bio at the end of your post, you can draw in visitors from sources that may get more hits than your website.
  • Reach out to your local print and tv media and offer to talk about some of the resources available on the site. 
  • Start an email list. Email marketing is still one of the strongest ways to engage with the public. Chances are, you found this very blog post through one of our email newsletters. Once you have it, use your list to highlight whitepapers, videos, conservation tips, and utility news recipients can find on your site.

As you start marketing your site, be sure to share your successes, mishaps, and everything in between on Small Communities #TalkAboutWater. Your experiences could help another small system reach their rate payers more effectively and efficiently.  

Websites Offer Conveniences for Utilities and Customers

If you’re reading this, you're probably already aware of the power of the internet to share information and raise awareness of important issues. Hopefully you think some websites (like ours!) are useful. But have you considered getting a website for your own utility? If you don’t have a website already, here are some things to consider.

Benefits of Going Online

A utility website can provide a number of services, both to you and to your customers. At the most basic level, a website can house the information people ask you for all the time: utility fee information, FAQs, maybe some fact sheets on common local concerns like water conservation or winterizing. Not only does this provide a convenient place to direct people for more information, but some people may Google first, and find what they’re looking for before they have to try tracking you down by phone.

Beyond this basic usefulness, websites can be outfitted with customer service contact forms, new service request forms, CCRs, board meeting schedules and minutes, online bill pay options, and other resources. Contact forms usually feed into an email account, which can be used to collect and organize non-emergency customer communication even when you’re not available. Online bill pay is a convenience for your customers, and online CCR distribution, if your utility is eligible, can be a convenience for you.

Website Building Services

If you’d be interesting in gaining the convenience of a website without having to set one up on your own, there are services that can help. As an example (but not an endorsement), Rural Water Impact provides website setup and migration services specifically for small water utilities. GoDaddy also offers a range of website design and hosting packages. And if you’d like to try your hand at a straight-forward design, services like Weebly and Squarespace make it as easy as drag and drop.

As always, we here at WaterOperator.org are happy to help you think through your website needs. You can reach us at info@wateroperator.org or 1-866-522-2681.

Planning for the Future

The convenience and organization of a good website can provide plenty of benefit in the present. But those benefits can stretch into the future, as young people accustomed to cell phones and internet use start getting old enough to pay the bills. In addition to providing convenience to you and your customers now, having an established website can prepare you and your utility for a new, more digital future.

A Few Considerations 

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires that water districts—among others—provide equal access to programs and services. One way to meet these requirements is to ensure that your website makes use of accessible design features. Systems with inaccessible sites may also be able to meet their legal obligations by providing an alternative way for people to access the information provide, such as a staffed telephone line. You can learn more about ADA requirements by calling the Department of Justice's toll-free information line at 800-514-0301. 

State law may also require that public utilities with websites maintained by utility staff post meeting schedules, agendas, and minutes. Your primacy agency should be aware of these requirements and can direct you to the appropriate state office for more detailed information.

If these requirements give you pause, consider talking with city or town officials to see if your system can instead be an active partner on their website. This is also a good option for systems concerned that under-staffing makes maintaining a website impossible.