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WaterOperator.org Blog

Articles in support of small community water and wastewater operators.

Raise your profile with AWWA’s Drinking Water Week

Raise your profile with AWWA’s Drinking Water Week

This week marks the American Water Works Association’s drinking water awareness week, and they are offering a suite of free materials for water operators and utilities to raise you profile in your local communities.

“This year’s Drinking Water Week will motivate water consumers to be actively aware of how they personally connect with water,” said AWWA Chief Executive Officer David LaFrance. “We should all know how to find and fix leaks, care for our home’s pipes and support our utility’s investment in water infrastructure.”

The materials – which include artwork, public service announcements, press and social media posts and more – provide an introduction four key steps AWWA is highlighting for water users this year:

  • Drinking Water Week Introduction – AWWA encourages getting to know and love tap water.
  • Get the Lead Out – Replace lead-based water pipes and plumbing.
  • Check and Fix Leaks – Conserve water by checking and fixing leaks inside and outside the home.
  • Caring For Pipes – Stop clogs before they happen by learning more about what can and can’t be flushed.
  • Water Infrastructure Investment – Protect your water supply by advocating for investment in the repair and replacement of infrastructure.

Help celebrate the rest of Drinking Water Week, and bookmark their materials for the next time your program wants to promote these issues.

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: Lead and Copper Sampling

For the past three weeks, we've talked about the dangers to drinking water quality posed by water storage facilities, and discussed what you can do to combat them. But there's another source of drinking water contamination that's gotten a lot more press in the past few years, and that's the distribution system. Lead and copper pipes are known for their ability to leach metal into the water they contain. When the pipes are particularly exposed or the water chemistry is particularly favorable, they can leach a lot. If your customers have an increased interest in getting their water tested---or you'd like a refresher on how lead and copper sampling works yourself---this video from AWWA can be a great place to start. The two-and-a-half minute video briefly outlines the basic provisions of the Lead and Copper Rule, and goes on to discuss the proper technique for collecting lead and copper samples.

The Quick Reference Guides mentioned in the video can be found on the USEPA website here. The page with additional resources on the rule is here. To see what consumer information resources other utilities and states have developed for the Lead and Copper Rule, search our document database using the category Lead and Copper and the type Factsheets/Case Studies.

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 

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. 

Tools to Help Utilities Get the Word Out Fast

Last week, we talked about the role public advisories can be used to garner community buy-in and create more informed rate payers. Planning and adopting a comprehensive advisory framework, though, takes time—something most small utilities just don’t have to spare.

With that reality in mind, we wanted to let you know about a few public notification services available on the market. A quick disclaimer first—we at WaterOperator.org aren’t endorsing these or any other company, and we recommend you do research on your own to find the system that best fits your needs. Whether you contact one of these companies, another, or none at all, it’s worth the time to find out how a system like this might benefit your community. Also, please remember to check with your primacy agency as to whether your chosen (lowercase) public notification option may or may not be used for compliance with the requirements of the (uppercase) Public Notification regulation, or simply as a trust-promoting public service.

Swiftreach Networks

Using the SwiftH2O™ internet-based platform, utilities easily create and send thousands of voice, text, fax and email messages within minutes to any number of individuals on any device. These notifications are directly targeted to affected customers and tracked, allowing you to track who received and listened to your messages.

RapdiNotify

This international company’s web-based mass notification system allows you to notify your staff, rate payers, and other contacts via phone, email, and text messages. The product includes a self-registration widget for your website, as well as GIS mapping to help you target mass communication inside specific, user-defined geographic areas.

WARN

WARN offers multiple notification platforms built with small communities in mind. WARN Mass Notify makes it possible and easy to contact thousands of homes, work, and cell numbers a minute, as well as send texts, emails, and faxes.

If paid services aren’t right for your utility, remember that social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have extremely broad reaches—with the added perk of allowing rate payers to respond. Whether your system is a social media beginner or veteran, the free resources below are worth checking out.

Communications, Customer Service, Social Networking

This 10-slide presentation breaks social media sites into basic kinds (conversational, one-way, interactive, etc.), and briefly discusses how many people use many of the most popular sites, basic uses of some social media outlets, and customer service on social media. 

Social Networking: The Old and the New, Interaction and Communication Between Communities and Their Customers and Operator to Operator Connectivity

This 23-slide presentation discusses social networking and social media. It discusses the importance, possible uses, and approach to using social media, particularly Facebook, for communication and outreach, and includes several screenshots of national water organization's Facebook pages. 

You can also contact us directly at info@wateroperator.org or join our Small Communities #TalkAboutWater LinkedIn group to get advice on how to tap into the power of social media. 

Public Advisories: They're Not Just for Emergencies

In the wake of Flint and similar events, questions about the effectiveness of public notification requirements are on the minds of many. In fact, the U.S. House of Representatives earlier this year voted 416-2 in support of a bill that would strengthen notification requirements related to lead levels. With concerns and emotions high, it can be difficult to remember that the best public notification procedures are about much more than emergency response and compliance.

In their Drinking Water Advisory Communication Toolbox, the Centers for Disease Control encourages drinking water systems to use advisories to

  • Provide information—An advisory may be issued when consumers need to receive important information by do not need to take any action. For example, a water system may issue and advisory to inform households about seasonal changes in water taste.
  • Encourage preparedness—Advisories may help customers prepare for a planned disruption in service or anticipated water quality threats. Advisories may affect a small area, such as during distribution system construction or repair. Advisories also can urge customers to prepare for a large area event, such as an approaching hurricane. This type of advisory alerts people to water or listen for more information.
  • Recommend action—Advisories may tell customers to take specific actions, such as to boil water or use bottled water. These advisories may be issued as a precaution or in response to a waterborne disease outbreak.
  • Meet public notification requirements—Advisories are required by the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) when specific circumstances exist. The SDWA requires communication with customers when the water system does not comply with a regulation.  

Water operators and communities are undoubtedly quite familiar with the reasons and requirements for the final two uses. But the value of the others may not be as apparent.

In addition to be being good business practices, issuing informative and preparedness advisories can actually help utilities garner community buy-in and help rate payers understand the time, hard work, and other resources that go into delivering clean, safe water. If all customers hear is bad news, they won’t be eager to support the local public system. Notifying people when water main repairs may close roads or when drilling a new well will provide the community with a new resources can change public perception of a utility and its staff.

The CDC toolbox is a great resource for small systems looking to improve their public notification procedures, but operators with lingering questions can visit our Documents Database or contact us directly at info@wateroperator.org. And be sure to check back here for a follow-up post on media platforms and available services that can help get the word out. 

What We Can Learn from Flint

It’s not often that drinking water gets in-depth news coverage and front page headlines, but I think we’re all just sad that it happened this way. The story of Flint, Michigan’s drinking water crisis has unfolded over nearly two years, but the national media attention escalated rapidly in the past month.

I believe I speak for every one of our WaterOperator.org readers when I say this just hits too close to home. This is our industry, these are our friends and colleagues, and of course, the people of Flint are our neighbors in trusting that tap water will always deliver.

There’s no role for blame because we’ve all lost on this one. And when you go beyond the issues of oversight, social justice, and politics, there’s a story about the challenging decisions that operators, utility managers, and local government officials make day-to-day. These jobs have aways been hard, but we now have an opportunity to grow, change, and do better.

This could have happened anywhere, but it doesn’t have to happen in your community. Here’s what everyone can learn from Flint:

Unintended consequences are real.

The story of Flint highlights the critical balancing act required to serve drinking water that meets every standard. One change (large or small) can have cascading effects on the entire treatment train and distribution system, so decisions should not be made lightly. Appendix C (Guidance for Evaluating Impacts of Treatment Changes on Distribution Systems) and D (Tools for Evaluating Impacts of Treatment Changes on Lead and Copper Rule Compliance) within the Simultaneous Compliance Guidance Manual are solid, first-step references.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

State and federal agencies are made up of people who care about what they do. So not only is it their job to help systems make better decisions, they want to do the right thing. They also know others with additional technical expertise, including researchers and technical assistance providers, who can consult with you at no cost. Ask for assistance when planning changes or as soon as you know there is a problem. If you’re not sure whom to contact, here’s the list of primacy agency websites. You can also contact us (info@wateroperator.org) and we’ll find someone who can help.

Public health is the priority.

A water system’s ultimate job is not to meet compliance, but to provide safe drinking water and protect public health. Regulations are the baseline mechanism for getting there, but thinking holistically about what’s logical can prevent unintended consequences. There are certainly flaws in the Safe Drinking Water Act regulations, so the Water Supply Guidance (WSG) manual offers policy statements and clarifications on intent as a starting point.

Trust is easier to break than restore.

It is always better to act out of an abundance of caution and be wrong, than it is to do nothing out of fear. Early, active, and consistent public communication (even when the answers are still uncertain) will go far to maintain the public’s trust in the water system and the local government. We’ve compiled some of the best resources on risk communication requirements and best practices.

The situation in Flint is more than unfortunate, but we can all reduce the chance that it will happen again and be more prepared to react in any emergency situation. Our thoughts are with each and every one of you working beyond measure to make this right.

Tips to Help Utilities Get the Water Rates They Need

In a previous post, we shared tips to help you lay the groundwork for a successful rate approval process. The strategies focused on gaining public support for your operations as a whole so customers understand its value when it came time to ask for additional funds. Following these will help you gain community buy-in, but how you present a rate increase proposal will still play a vital role in ensuring you have the rates you need. 

Here are a few things to remember while you are developing your communication strategy:

  • Timing is key. Community events, especially elections, can have a significant influence on the success of an increase.
  • Anticipating customer concerns and providing answers to questions about the need for the increase, cost efficiency, and how the change will affect individuals up front can do a lot to misunderstandings and foster public support.
  • Whether you're talking to a customers or the board, your messages should be succinct and consistent. Statements like, "Water reliability is at risk due to the need to upgrade the distribution system," clearly convey what is at stake and what actions can be taken.
  • Your local media can be a beneficial partner in utility communication, particularly if you have taken steps to cultivate a relationship.
  • Working with community stakeholders like environmental groups, industries, and even neighboring utilities can lend credibility to your messages and create champions for the rate adjustment. 

For more suggestions, read this report from an expert panel discussion at the 2014 AWWA/WEF Utility Management Conference.