Every little bit helps when it comes to educating the public about the infrastructure beneath their feet.


When most people travel to a new city or town they look up and notice all the buildings, architecture, signage, and other pretty things. Not me. I look down. I have always had a fascination with buried infrastructure. From climbing through culverts as a kid (I don't recommend this anymore) to noticing different manhole cover designs, it has always interested me.

When in a new place — or even places I have been a thousand times — I often take photos of drains and manhole covers. This serves a few different purposes to me:

  • One, my curiosity. I simply like the designs and am always amazed at what is below our feet that most people are simply unaware of. I see a manhole cover as a little reminder of all the hard work our wastewater operators do on a daily basis that is largely unnoticed.
  • Two, I wonder what utilities are doing to highlight their infrastructure or educate the public about what they do. Remember in the movie Finding Nemo when the fish says, “All drains lead to the ocean”? Well, my kids heard that and have remembered it since. I take that message and explain it further, and what kid doesn’t like a little lesson on where the poop and pee goes? (Haha, Dad said poop.) Furthermore, explaining the difference between water, sewer and storm drains helps teach kids about clean water, and that is critically important at a young age.
  • Three, it reminds me how important the work we do is.

Public outreach for water and wastewater utilities and public works departments comes so naturally to some. Cities like San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Boston all have great programs as do many utility districts like NEORSD in Ohio and others. However, some utilities see no value and do not invest their time and effort into public outreach. They simply feel it’s not worth it or not their role. I disagree. It is our role as stewards of the industry. We must lead and engage the public in any way we can. Paint a duck or a fish near storm drains with a message, “This drain leads to the ocean,” and you may be surprised that people are actually looking down and taking notice.

Related: Overcoming Barriers to Water Innovation

If you work in a clean water profession, share a story with someone on a bus, train or airplane, or next time you are in line at Starbucks getting your double pumpkin latte spice frappuccino talk about the work that is done to keep water clean by our industry and the amazing people that work in it. Some people will simply look at you funny, but you may be surprised how many will simply reply, “Huh, I didn’t know that,” and you will have then made a difference.

I will always remember a quote I heard years ago that changed the way I viewed many things in business and life:

"If not me, who? And if not now, when?"

Related: Top 10 Utilities to Follow on Facebook

What are you doing to educate the public about clean water and the critical infrastructure below their feet?

About the Author
Matt Timberlake is president of Ted Berry Company in Livermore, Maine.


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