Before the water industry can integrate drought solutions, fight against infrastructure decay, or collect metering data, consumers need to understand why those things matter when they turn on the faucet. Water professionals know that the public has a lot to learn about what goes on behind the scenes. The challenge of communicating all of that work is burning on the minds of the industry’s brightest luminaries.
During ACE, the annual conference conducted by the American Water Works Association (AWWA), educational sessions ran the gamut and the floor showcased high-tech solutions to almost any problem. But a keystone annual event held on the final day of the conference, known as the “H2Open Forum” focused on that predominant topic: The value of water.
Moderated by AWWA’s 2015-2016 President Elect Jeanne Bennett-Bailey, the panel discussion featured industry thought-leaders answering pointed questions about something everyone in the room already knew — the fact that water is essential, reliable, invaluable — and how to communicate this to the outside world.
Panelists included Cindy Wallis-Lage, President of Global Water Business at Black & Veatch; George Hawkins, CEO and General Manager of the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority (DC Water); Jeffrey Kightlinger, General Manager for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California; and Snehal Desai, Global Business Director for Dow Water & Process Solutions.
“Water is essential,” opened Bennett-Bailey. “This is not new to any of us.”
From there, the discussion focused on making that as clear as possible to the public.
Wallis-Lage zeroed in on the dire need for effective conservation messages in California, home to the conference this year. She evoked the story of a young girl who asked her mother what the world would be like if our wells really did dry up for good.
“It boils down to one word: resilience,” Wallis-Lage said.
Serving a district that faces questions of resilience as often as any other, Kightlinger echoed her point while listing some of the difficulties he’s faced in getting residents to understand the imperative of conservation during a time of historic drought.
“It’s been a fascinating run we’re on right now,” he said, understating the lessons learned and stark challenges ahead.
Fittingly, the collaborative environment of such a back-and-forth panel discussion is what ultimately produced the forum’s greatest insight. Communicating the value of water is only possible through a unified voice.
“If we could ever deploy one message… it would be incredibly powerful,” said Hawkins.
With encouraging nods from his fellow panelists, Hawkins went on to share some optimism gained from his years of experience with DC Water.
“People love the product of water, it’s one of the most fun things to communicate about,” he said. “I believe people will pay money for something they understand.”
For his part, Desai tempered this enthusiasm a bit with a harsh reality, but one that the industry must keep in mind if it hopes to make any lasting progress in public perception.
“This communication process is a long road,” he said.