All on the Same Page

Getting the public on your side may not be easy, but it’s critical to your success.

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Conservation is a topic on the minds of all water distribution professionals. Drought conditions that swept across much of the U.S. in the summer of 2012 brought it to the forefront, especially in areas that are dry to begin with.

I recently came across a story from Eugene, Ore. It highlighted the "unintended consequences" of the decrease in water usage in the local service area. Utility board commissioners were weighing a possible rate increase because water use has declined 20 percent over the past four years. Like most water utilities, it has high fixed costs and needs to offset the loss of revenue.

The story quoted one local man who wasn't happy about the increase but nonetheless understood. He pointed out that the public utility has to cover its costs. "It's not [the utility] against us, [the utility] is us," he said. I wanted to track this person down and thank him for taking responsibility and ownership for his small part of the equation, especially in a society where it seems everyone wants everything and no one wants to pay for anything.

The comments following the story were 100 percent against the rate hike. Rationale ranged from government inefficiencies to the cost of utility employees' retirement benefits. There were no comments about the future cost to ratepayers if rates weren't increased and the revenue deficit was made up through other means, like cutting back on system maintenance. Most commenters lacked that foresight.

The cities of St. Louis and Toronto, both profiled in this issue, have their own stories about making up for lost revenue and getting public buy-in on expensive capital improvement projects.

Toronto funds its water system entirely through revenue generated by ratepayers. The utility serves not only the city, but also clients in the neighboring regions of York and Peel. Water conservation efforts, however, represent a double-edged sword for the utility, which has seen revenue decline along with the volume of water consumed.

Michael D'Andrea, director of Water Infrastructure Management with Toronto Water, says the utility is constantly challenged to balance rate increases with reductions in operating costs in order to devote additional resources to capital improvements.

Public buy-in is just as important on the collections side, too. The St. Louis Metropolitan Sewer District is in the midst of one of the largest construction undertakings in the region's history. MSD authorities say there is a very clear "people" side to the project.

While the water quality regulations are paramount — the city is under consent decree — authorities say that it's just as important that the public understand the district's watershed concept, especially the impact of stormwater. They say it's what people do at home that makes the difference, and it takes a lot of individual actions — everything from landscaping, to fertilizer, to household hazardous materials and pet waste.

While the consent decree provides marching orders, they say they have to change individual behavior and change the culture if they're going to be successful at developing these projects.

So what can you do? Much like the people in St. Louis, you need to take advantage of any opportunity to change the culture among utility customers. The majority will never side with rate increases — or any large expenditures — if they don't have a clear understanding of what it will cost them if they ignore the problem. As utility managers, you have a difficult job, and adding ombudsman or community outreach specialist to your list of responsibilities won't make your day any easier. But it could make tomorrow easier, and if you can reach people and inform them, every day after might get a little easier, too.

It's a tall order, but getting public buy-in is critical for the future of public utilities. I hope these stories can provide a bit of inspiration for you and your crews. It's a difficult job, but maybe one day your customers will thank you for it.

Enjoy this month's issue.


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