More than 70 percent of San Francisco’s sewers were built before or during the Great Depression and now need repair. Rising Pacific tides, possibly from global warming, are beginning to overtop the city’s weirs and are leaking into the wastewater system. Faced with the exorbitant cost of rectifying the problems and preparing for the next 30 years, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (PUC) is attempting to persuade its residents of the importance of accepting steep future rate increases to meet those needs.
Like the City by the Bay, many other municipalities have been plunging into unprecedented efforts to build public support for rate increases to repair and expand their water and wastewater systems. Whether facing the replacement of ancient and crumbling water infrastructure or laying the foundation for robust new economic growth, water and wastewater department heads are not depending on politicians to guarantee the resources they need. Instead, they are going directly to residents to win their support.
Two organizations have created programs to help local water departments searching for community support for improvements. In 2005, the Alexandria, Va.-based Water Environment Federation (WEF) launched “Water is Life, and Infrastructure Makes It Happen,” and Denver-based American Water Works Association (AWWA) introduced “Only Tap Water Delivers” in May 2006. Both programs aim to educate the public, the media and elected officials about the value of water and wastewater infrastructure and the growing need to invest in it. “The network of reservoirs, pipes and treatment facilities are the lifeblood of our communities,” says Jack Hoffbuhr, AWWA’s executive director. “[This] campaign brings the conversation about the value of water service and infrastructure aboveground.”
Voters’ preoccupation with other local issues, budget cycles and competing fiscal needs, and public works executives with poor public relations skills can hinder efforts to raise public consciousness on water issues. However, there is a growing awareness of the importance of preserving and maximizing local government water systems that are being threatened by population growth, aquifer depletion or climate change. Typically local governments combine advice and creative elements from the AWWA and WEF campaigns with their own, specific plans.
A tactical change
Throughout the 1990s, Columbus, Ga., water officials only asked residents to approve big bond issues with double-digit rate boosts every five or six years. They changed their approach about six years ago while preparing a 10-year capital improvement plan for the system. “Our thinking was the less often we’d have a rate increase, the happier people would be,” says Jim Patterson, vice president and deputy director of the strategic and master plan division of Columbus Water Works. “But what we actually found is that people didn’t remember that you hadn’t had a rate increase in four years; they would think you had just had one. So, we changed our philosophy and developed a plan for 4- to 5-percent rate increases every year to fund the new improvement plan.”
It was crucial to inform the public about the shift in philosophy as well as the need for upgrading the system, which included many pipes that had been in the ground for more than a century and a main water plant that still relied on some structures from 1915. Officials worried that their biggest needs were underground, in wastewater disposal, which tends to be less appreciated by residents than to the tap water that flows into their homes. Also, they feared that needing to rehab the existing system would draw less public support than something more interesting, such as expansion to satisfy new industry and create jobs.
So, Patterson and his colleagues taught themselves to squeeze the most out of their annual $50,000 public communications budget. Five years ago, they began to insert flyers into water bills alerting customers to the change in the department’s financial philosophy and the regular rate hikes. They also began to buy commercial time on local TV stations. With a consultant’s help to secure a discount, the department purchased a year’s worth of 30-second spots for about $24,000.
One of the first ads used file footage of a memorable Columbus fire using an announcer saying, “We need water!” The purpose, Patterson explains, was “to remind people that it’s not all about drinking water. It’s also about fighting fires and supporting industry.” Another, which incorporates WEF’s tip to use well-known historical figures in advertisements to underscore the origins of water systems, featured Theodore Roosevelt, who was president when Columbus’ main plant was built.
In another series of ads, the city took an AWWA suggestion to use a female voice saying, “You turn me on,” while showing video of a running faucet. “We were a little timid about going to TV,” Patterson says. “As a municipal utility, we are a monopoly, and we thought we’d get the reaction, ‘Why are you wasting money on advertising?’”
The city’s most recent quarterly public opinion survey, however, found that 90 percent of Columbus residents endorsed the department’s TV advertisements and flyers. Lately, the survey also has been showing overwhelming support for the water department and a big jump in satisfaction with the fairness of wastewater rates relative to fresh water rates.
Finally, Columbus Water Works received no opposition at a public hearing about a new $40 million bond issue. “The only reason I can see for this success,” Patterson says, “is our communication program.”
Take it to the people
San Francisco’s approach to communications emerged from the failure of a $1 billion sewer system bond issue in 2001 attributed to low public awareness and acceptance of the problem. Since then, the PUC has adopted a creative and aggressive public relations campaign that includes meetings with residents, mailings, a documentary segment on a national television show and an advisory committee of local residents. “We’re starting from the ground up with the public process,” says Tyrone Jue, PUC wastewater communications manager. “We haven’t even decided yet on our options for spending in the capital plan. We wanted to go public first, to work with residents in concert — to explain the challenges and get them involved and educated. And we wanted to hear what they have to say.”
In addition, officials erected water-education kiosks in all city libraries and began sending letters to every resident reminding them of the feats the wastewater system performs daily and of the challenges it faces, as well as asking for their input. “We gave them cards listing problems — including flooding, aging infrastructure and disposal of solid waste — asking them, ‘What are your top priorities?”’ Jue says. “We got 8,000 of those cards back, which was a pretty good number.”
But PUC officials wanted to generate even more appreciation of their accomplishments, and their plight, by transporting residents into the actual bowels of the San Francisco wastewater system. The PUC began monthly public tours of the wastewater facilities, averaging 30 individuals per tour. And, last year the main host of Discovery Channel’s “Dirty Jobs” show, who is a San Franciscan, arranged the filming of an episode about the challenges city sewer repair crews face trying to keep 150-year-old street drains functioning.
The city has yet to unveil a master water plan that would take advantage of rising levels of public support, but over the last year or so, surveys by PUC officials already have measured increasing resident awareness of wastewater systems. “Everyone in the agency, including engineers and managers, [was] hesitant about what we were trying to accomplish through a very intense public-outreach process,” Jue says. “The apprehension about opening yourself up to the public was that someone was going to come out of left field and attack what you’re doing. But, just the opposite has happened.”
While most communities are not facing San Francisco’s severe water infrastructure problems, many are increasing the visibility of their systems to maintain the public’s awareness of water services. In Contra Costa, Calif., even after investing more than $800 million in its infrastructure over the last decade, the city regularly inserts “Only Tap Water Delivers” messages on its Web site and in its newsletter to residents. The messages include a comparison of the cost of a gallon of tap water and the prices of bottled water, milk and gasoline. They also appeal to parents to have their children drink tap water instead of soft drinks to help maintain a healthy weight.
Timing is everything
Like Contra Costa, Miami does not immediately need to repair its system, but local officials are planning a multi-billion-dollar effort to develop new water supplies for the fast-growing city. The improvements will be needed because state officials want to restrict the city’s outtake from the nearby Biscayne Aquifer. (Florida is rehabilitating the Everglades, which are on top of the aquifer.)
As a result, the Miami-Dade Water & Sewer Department is planning to launch “Only Tap Water Delivers” messages on city bus benches this year as well as radio ads. Last year, the department began to address what may be its largest obstacle to the improvements: significant disinterest in its water problems among the city’s large Hispanic population. “Immigrant populations here haven’t tended to talk about water problems in their home countries — the whole concept of conserving water and the need for infrastructure — so it’s kind of new to them,” says Frank Calderon, department information officer. “But it’s important to get them on board.”
Without educational public relations campaigns, water and sewer rate increases can meet with resistance from residents. In Pima County, Ariz., officials must rehabilitate and expand wastewater facilities and launch a system for detoxifying effluents, but they do not have a budget for a significant public relations program. Wastewater rates jumped 28 percent in 2005, and they are slated to lurch up an additional 6 percent every six months. The average wastewater bill already has risen from $7 to about $20 a month and eventually could reach about $40, says Jeff Nichols, Pima County’s controller for wastewater management. The public has approved the higher rates so far, but Nichols recognizes the potential for resistance when rates move higher in the future. “We need a very good [communications] program,” Nichols says. “The system doesn’t know politics. It doesn’t know anything other than that it needs to be fixed.”
Pima County has reached out to the community through public meetings and some assistance from the local news media. And while Operations Division Manager John Warner would like to insert “Water is Life” flyers in his bills, the Tucson Water department controls the billing and has been keeping those slots for itself.
“How we’re going to pay for all of this is something that needs to be acknowledged and shared with rate payers and system customers,” Warner says. “We’re on the verge of turning the corner in 2007, and we’ll get out some strong messages under our action plan.”
Dale Buss is a Rochester Hills, Mich.-based freelance writer.