Make sure your customers know the downstream impact they have.

I was hanging out with family this past summer, sitting outside my brother’s house along the Wisconsin River in Rhinelander, Wisconsin. The Olympic opening ceremonies were on TV inside. Water had been such a huge topic in the days leading up to the games, and our conversation eventually turned to the river flowing in front of us.

At one point someone asked about the longest river in the U.S. The majority of those who had given ear to the conversation immediately went for the obvious answer: the Mississippi. I was among the majority and was, of course, wrong. It’s the Missouri. My dad had it right. The Mississippi is second, and no one could come up with the Yukon, which checks in at third.

The aquatic measuring stick then turned to the Great Lakes, which combined hold almost a fifth of the world’s freshwater supply. They make up 90 percent of the United States’ supply of freshwater. Our spot there along the Wisconsin was within two hours of both Lake Michigan and Lake Superior.

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So from our location, we could have launched a boat on the Wisconsin River, floated down to the Mississippi and made our way south into the Gulf of Mexico, down around the tip of Florida and up the Atlantic Coast to the St. Lawrence Seaway, which would have allowed us to continue on through the Great Lakes and back to within a couple hours’ drive (or a long portage) of our starting point.

It’s amazing how connected it all is. On its way to the Gulf, the water we were swimming in will feed Wisconsin’s paper mills, produce power, flow through the gills of monster channel cats on the Mississippi, move massive loads of cargo and support endless recreational opportunities.

It’s easy in the course of day-to-day life to forget that the water in Wisconsin, or whatever state you live in, doesn’t belong to you. It’s constantly flowing through the cycle.

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My brother lives in a small bay off the Wisconsin’s main channel. The river makes a sharp bend away just past the bay, and all the debris that comes floating down seems to end up in front of his house. It’s a beautiful spot on the river, but you’re always aware of the sins of everyone upriver — lost bottles, bait containers, even the occasional beach ball make their way into the back corner of the bay. One of my nephews’ friends pulled up a 5-gallon bucket and a drumstick-shaped plastic dog toy the next day.

It’s not hard to move your mind downriver and think about how exponentially worse the problem gets as the water flows south.

You’re no doubt well aware of the water cycle and what it takes to protect this most critical resource, but most of your customers probably don’t give it much thought. That’s why outreach and education are so important. Without the buy-in and understanding of the public, large-scale improvements in our water and wastewater systems are far more difficult.

Related: Sustainability and Resiliency Planning for Water Utilities

Louisville Water, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, and the Madison (Wisconsin) Water Utility are great examples of utilities that have gained wide public support and flourished because of it. We’ve told their stories and the stories of so many other strong utilities in these pages. I hope you can learn from them and use their examples to raise the value of water in your own communities.

Enjoy this month’s issue.

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