AMERICA’S WATER INFRASTRUCTURE CRISIS: THE SIX PILLAR SOLUTION

Pillar #1 – Education

Earlier this year, we introduced the idea of Six Pillars that must be addressed to reverse the dire state of America’s water infrastructure. The solution lies in leadership and a plan that addresses these many challenges comprehensively.

Pillar #1 is Education. Before this crisis can be solved, its dimensions and consequences must be known. Continuous education of and communication to customers, policy makers, the media and other stakeholders is the essential element needed to build the water systems we need.

There are many water topics that need to be communicated to stakeholders. Lead is a big issue that has received tremendous media attention in the last few years, for good reason. According to the EPA, approximately 10 million US homes and buildings utilize service lines containing lead. Cities and utilities approach the situation in a variety of ways, but private-side water service lines and interior plumbing fixtures are a significant part of the problem. Those are the homeowner’s responsibility, so extensive consumer education is warranted. According to an AWWA publication, “in the near future, utilities may be encouraged and even required to increase their communications efforts to better protect their customers from lead exposure at the tap.”

At AWWA’s Drinking Water Week in 2016, more than 100 water utility leaders from throughout North America shared strategies for communicating about lead service lines.

The Cincinnati Water Works has expanded its outreach on lead, including the addition of a new lead website, a lead hotline, social media outreach, direct letters to more than 20,000 customers, a speaker’s bureau and the distribution of pitcher filters to homes thought to be at higher risk.

Boston Water has an online database that allows homeowners to search by address to determine if their property has a lead service line. Boston Water also offers a credit of up to $2,000 ad interest-free loans to assist homeowners interested in remove the portion of lead pipe on private property.

Louisville Water Company has a long history with lead, having installed over 74,000 lead service lines until 1937. They began replacing lead service lines in the early 1970s. After the Flint, Michigan debacle, Louisville Water assessed their communications plan and developed a “think 3” approach of three overall water quality/public health messages and three points on managing potential risks with lead. In addition to customers, stakeholder targets included the local public health department, elected leaders and schools and daycares.

They developed a wealth of assets to communicate, including an updated website, brochures and fact sheets, how-to postcards on flushing pipes and taking water samples, and animations and videos. This comprehensive communications plan resulted in increased customer trust in the water company to produce safe, high quality drinking water, a renewed partnership with the local health department, and an enhanced understanding of the consumer’s role in water quality.

Water conservation is another topic requiring extensive educational outreach. WaterSense is a voluntary partnership program sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It serves as a resource for helping residential and commercial users save water and offers a wealth of information about outdoor irrigation, conservation in the home, technical product specifications and certification programs. Municipalities and utilities can utilize this resource in their communications efforts. WaterSense also offers product labeling that assists consumers in selecting water-efficient products.

An important component of infrastructure education and communication for municipalities and utilities is related to private side service lines. When a water or sewer line breaks, the homeowner is generally responsible for the portion of the line from the house to the water meter, called the “private-side” and the City or utility is responsible for the portion of the line from the water meter to the water main, called the “public-side.”  When private-side service lines break, many homeowners call the city or water utility first, and then are surprised to learn that the City can’t help solve this expensive problem.

For example, the City of Newark is one of America’s oldest cities.  In recent years it has experienced a steady increase in water infrastructure challenges and problems.  City Council members were being contacted often by residents with water line issues and they were growing increasingly concerned about citizens who may experience financial hardships from water line repairs.  Approximately two years ago, Newark decided to offer the National League of Cities (NLC) Service Line Warranty Program to residents.

Educational marketing about homeowners’ responsibility for service lines is a key component of the program.  Residents receive information about the program via direct mail, bill inserts and through digital media.  Program materials are available in different languages which is helpful to cities with ethnically diverse populations. Newark homeowners have been enthusiastic about the program, and the council has received positive feedback from citizens who appreciate the City providing information.

Education and communication is certainly key to making infrastructure improvements with regard to lead, water conservation, and private-side issues that are addressed quickly and competently before they lead to extensive water loss and cause further damage to private and public infrastructure. However, there are many additional factors to consider, which will be featured in upcoming blogs.

Next up, Pillar #2 – Data.