Utility Gets Residents' Help in Reducing Overflows Via Text Campaign

Text messages for Milwaukee’s clean-water utility notify residents during heavy rains to cut back on water use and help prevent sewer overflows

Utility Gets Residents' Help in Reducing Overflows Via Text Campaign

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The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District has enlisted residents’ help in reducing sewer overflows during heavy rains by creating a Water Drop Alert text message campaign.

Since 1994 the district has averaged 2.3 overflows per year, and the goal is to get that to zero by changing citizens’ behaviors. Residents who opt into the Water Drop campaign are alerted to weather conditions during which they could make overflows worse if they use water.

The alerts come via cellphones and ask recipients to delay dishwashing and laundry and take shorter showers during wet-weather periods. The program began in 2017 and has grown more popular ever since.

The district has capacity to treat 600 mgd for 28 municipalities and serves 1.1 million people through its Jones Island and South Shore water reclamation facilities on the shore of Lake Michigan. To help reduce overflows the district promotes rain garden plant sales, rain barrel workshops, a private property inflow and infiltration program, and more.

The origins

To make the Water Drop program happen, the district enlisted Common Ground, a nonpartisan group in southeastern Wisconsin made up of a group of citizens who identify problems in a community and work on creative solutions.

The organization helped design the cost-effective and innovative text alert system and then worked with the district to push simple, informative and actionable messages out to those who register to receive them. The cost to send each text message is one cent.

Once the idea was hatched, the district promoted it through social media, its website, billboards around its service area, in-person events and neighborhood apps. In four years, the program has grown from a few hundred participants to 4,200.

Opting in

Signing up is easy: Residents simply send a text to a specified number from their cellphones or visit the district website and submit a form. The website provides weather, rainfall and overflow information. Subscribers can opt out at any time.

“Our goal is to provide timely information to the public in hopes of preparing them for dangerous conditions they should know about, and at the same time ask them to change their behaviors to help decrease the impacts of storm events on our sewer system,” says Jeff Spence, director of community outreach and business engagement. Messages residents receive include:

 -Thanks for opting in

-Requests to limit water use until the rain ends

-Notification on whether an overflow has occurred

-Notices when an alert is over with thanks for reducing water usage

Award recognition

The Water Drop Alert campaign received a National Association of Clean Water Agencies 2021 National Environmental Achievement Award for Public Information and Education in the electronic media category.

As a bonus, the program educates the public on the services the district provides, especially for those who visit the website. Information on the website tells about overflows and how weather affects them. Residents can also learn other ways to save water at homes and in the community.

“While it’s difficult to quantify the exact impact, we have seen an increased awareness among residents in how their use of water during a rain event can affect the community,” Spence says.

“An interesting observation is that many of our residents have little understanding of how our water systems work and how our individual actions can help or hinder operations that protect community health, property and local waterways. This signals that we need to do an even better job of public education and engagement.”

The Water Drop Alert program is helping to do just that. Spence notes that when the utility sends a Water Drop Alert, it is its most shared social post. This indicates that residents believe in the alerts and want to help educate their friends and families. 


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