News Feature | March 12, 2018

Here's Why Utilities Should Talk To Their Ratepayers

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome,

Many water utilities stay in close contact with ratepayers, but when budgets are tight, communications outreach is a task that sometimes gets pushed aside.

Cutting outreach is a mistake, new research shows. It is critical for municipal water utilities to communicate effectively with ratepayers and give the public a voice in major decisions, a new study finds.

Closing the gap between ratepayers and water managers results in decisions that are more effective and sustainable, researchers at Portland State University (PSU) wrote in the latest issue of Water Resources Research.

Melissa Haeffner, the study's principal investigator, said the more a utility communicates with its ratepayers, the more the ratepayers agree with political leaders and professional water managers.

"I believe it's just as important to study how human factors influence local water policy as it is to study the science of water quality or the costs of upgrading water infrastructure," Haeffner said in a statement. "Today most research on city water systems focuses on these engineering or economic factors. My research examines how human behaviors impact local water policy."

Previous research has probed how exactly water utilities should communicate with ratepayers. One study conducted by University of Delaware researchers, published in the journal Agricultural and Resource Economics Review, attempted to clarify how the public feels about paying for water at a time when infrastructure spending is sorely needed.

The findings: People are more eager to pay for “green infrastructure” than traditional treatment plants, which the study referred to as “gray infrastructure.”

Kent Messer, one of the researchers, explained: "People are much more willing to pay for conservation. They like the idea of permanently protecting the waters from their source and avoiding having to do technological fixes."

The study also found that survey participants changed their choices depending on how the messaging was delivered.

"The big surprise was that messages stating that 'storms are increasing in frequency due to extreme weather events,' led to a dramatic decrease in people's willingness to pay for either conservation or gray infrastructure," Messer said. "This has important implications for how politicians and conservation leaders talk about drinking water protection."

Water utilities say the value of water is one of the hardest issues to truly convey to ratepayers.

Just ask George Hawkins, the former CEO DC Water. Ratepayers don’t realize “what a miracle of modern civilization it is” when they drink tap water, Hawkins said in a wide-ranging interview with Bloomberg BNA.

“We have done well for decades in most cities, so most people in the United States who walk up to a water fountain or a spigot expect it,” he said.