Guest Column | May 23, 2014

How To Raise Consumer Confidence In Your Water


By Julia Adamiak. laboratory supervisor, City of Waukegan Water Treatment Plant

Utilities already have the resources to deliver the key ingredient: education.

espite stringent regulation of public water supplies, many consumers are still concerned about the quality of their tap water. Topics of concern include health effects of treatment chemicals, natural and synthetic contaminants, as well as temporary changes in water quality due to repairs and routine maintenance of the distribution system. Recent widespread publications of chemical spills and bacterial contamination of public water supplies have caused consumers to be more wary of tap water. Bottled water, through mass milliondollar marketing campaigns, is perceived as an increasingly appealing alternative. On top of that, there is a lack of communication and information on the part of utilities and an overload of negative information or misinformation regarding tap water. The good news is that the majority of utilities already have the resources and tools needed to reach out and educate consumers about the water that they produce. With the right approach, utilities hold the power to positively change their consumers' perception of tap water.

It is a widely known fact that water utilities are facing challenging times in terms of budget constraints and manpower reduction. They are also simultaneously managing pressing problems such as aging infrastructure, increased compliance monitoring, and expanding regulations. As a result, the importance and quality of the services provided and the finished product delivered to the consumer have unintentionally taken a backseat. It is important to remember that the consumer pays for the services and the product. This is where revenue comes from. Not paying enough attention to consumers' needs and concerns will potentially push more of them away from using tap water and cut revenues even further. Most water professionals are not only confident in the tap water that they help produce, but also agree that tap water is in many respects safer to drink than bottled water. Why is it then that many consumers do not share this perception? Why are studies still showing a lack of confidence in municipal water on the part of the consumer? Consumer confidence in tap water is lacking because most information reaching consumers about tap water is coming from sources other than the water utility. Usually the information comes from traditional media outlets and is focused on dramatic or shocking topics like "water contamination" or "dangers of fluoridation." Unbiased and factual information from authoritative and verifiable sources, although widely available, is not reaching enough consumers.

Provide Authoritative Information
So, what can water utilities do to better educate their consumers about tap water and increase confidence in the process? Many consumers are unaware of what exactly it is that water utilities do. To fix this, water utilities must be completely transparent and make an effort to provide authoritative information on a regular basis. The easiest way to do this is for the water utility to increase its presence online. This is also the most cost-effective way, as many cities already have established websites for their various departments. Under a water department Web page, water utilities should create informative and educational content with relevant sources and links.

At its minimum every water utility website should have general information about the various departments that fall under the water utility, including the water treatment plant, meter department, main department, and billing. Each department should be described and photos should be included if possible. It is also important to describe the water treatment process that the utility uses, the chemicals that are used, and why they are used. Include some of the laboratory testing that is conducted throughout the treatment process. Using photographs, showcase the best parts of the facility, key process and control components, and equipment. Do the same for the other water departments. Often maintenance, repairs, and the constant monitoring of the distribution system handled by water main field crew goes unappreciated. Describe some of the work that is done to maintain water distribution system integrity and post pictures of the water main crew working on the system, especially during extreme weather temperatures. This will imbue consumer respect and appreciation for staff as well as an understanding when service needs to be interrupted for maintenance or repair.

Consumer confidence in tap water is lacking because most information reaching consumers about tap water is coming from sources other than the water utility.

Update Mailings And CCRs
According to the Water Research Foundation (WRF), information sent through mail or written on mailed water bills has the highest likelihood of being read by customers. The Consumer Confidence Report (CCR) is still the best way to reach out to the highest number of people. For many utilities, however, the CCR content is very much the same from year to year. More effort needs to be put into compiling a CCR that contains refined and tactical information that will raise consumer confidence, supplemented with the rigorous testing results for all monitored contaminants. Those contaminants that are hotly debated, receive a lot of publicity, or are of concern to consumers need to be explained in more detail. For those utilities forced to stick to the fourpage format due to budget constraints, a separate detailed document can be compiled and posted online together with the official CCR. In the mailed CCR and on water bills include the direct website link to this comprehensive "secondary" report.

The CCR should also be posted under a general water quality section on the website. This section should also house FAQs and articles written by the utility addressing topics of concern as well as links to respectable websites and authoritative research or study reports. The most common issues consumers are concerned about are "dirty" water, cloudy water, and particulates in water. These water quality issues are common to most utilities and can usually be traced to hydrant flushing, main break repairs, and other maintenance done on the water system. Prepare FAQs to address these issues and offer solutions.

Don't Just Warn, Explain
For utilities located in northern climates, recent extreme cold temperatures have placed more pressure on the already aging and fragile infrastructure, resulting in more water main breaks and other repairs. When water shutoffs are necessary to make these repairs, water utilities are required to issue boil-order notices to affected customers. Recent news of water contamination and the increasing frequency of main breaks have customers on edge. Often customers given boil-order notices due to repairs assume the water is contaminated. Utilities must review their boil-order procedure and explain that process to the consumer so that they understand that not all boil orders are a result of contamination. In fact, most boil orders are precautionary in nature and due to ongoing system maintenance.

Debunk Myths
There are two more items that every utility should make an effort to compile and post online: information on tap versus bottled water, and fluoridation. To do this, more effort and time may be required to research these topics and then summarize and compile a document in a way that will be easy for consumers to understand. It may be useful to also post links to any articles or research findings for those informed consumers who would further like to research those topics on their own.

Endocrine disrupters and chromium-6 have been making headlines as well in recent years. Most state Environmental Protection Agency websites contain a wealth of information accompanied by assessments and testing results, which can be posted directly on the utility's website. Consumers should also be provided with links to the Environmental Protection Agency, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Public Health Department, World Health Organization, and other scientifically based media sources and encouraged to visit them for more information.

Many consumers are unaware of what exactly it is that water utilities do. To fix this, water utilities must be completely transparent and make an effort to provide authoritative information on a regular basis.

Get The Word Out
Once relevant content is gathered and made available online, it is time to come up with ways to get this information to the consumer. Many cities have their own public relations department. This can be a great resource to get a message out there. For water utilities that are fortunate to have a PR department, arrange for a meeting and collaborate on possible PR methods to educate and increase awareness and benefits of drinking municipal water in the community. Consider creating educational flyers, which can be posted in public places, distributed across various departments within the city for employees, or included in water bills.

Meet with operators and lab personnel to let them know of the available online content. Provide them with a website address to the water department page where concerned customers can be directed.

For those utilities that already have a "Pay Your Water Bill Online" link, think of ways to place this link strategically so that consumers paying a bill online will see the available content. For example, once a consumer clicks on "Pay Online," a catchy phrase with a link such as, "Find out more about your tap water," could entice them to click. Be creative. Include the website on water bills with a summary of what can be found online. Do the same with CCRs mailed to consumers.

Many city websites also have notification systems where messages can be sent out automatically to a majority of residents as both phone and text messages. These are used for both emergency alerts and outreach purposes. Many water utilities already use these notification tools to inform residents of impending repairs, water shutoffs, and boil orders. Using this tool, as well as RSS feeds and social media, to disseminate the information mentioned in this article should be considered.

In conclusion, water utilities must increase transparency about the vital role that they play in their communities. Having a website is the most costeffective way to accomplish this. Consumers who view this content should gain a greater appreciation for the work that the water utility does. Once consumers have an understanding of the hard work involved in running a water utility, they will become more confident in the staff that runs the utility and place a greater value on water.

Publication of testing results complemented by the emphasis of the rigorous compliance monitoring and regulation that tap water is subjected to should serve to ease consumers' concerns. Articles with links to further information on topics such as tap versus bottled water and water fluoridation will show consumers that the water utility is knowledgeable and competent in addressing more complex concerns. Educating consumers also serves as an indirect way to facilitate approval for rate increases in the future and procurement of necessary funding that needs both public and stakeholder approval.

Julia Adamiak has been the laboratory supervisor for the City of Waukegan Water Treatment Plant since 2008. Adamiak holds a B.S. degree in biological sciences from the University of Illinois at Chicago.