The value of water: utilities education is equal parts financial and communal

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The Mansfield Water Utilities public education team is often asked why cities need to educate and communicate to the public about water. For the people inside the industry, the answer is obvious.

Water is something everyone needs. Yet even though water is a necessity, the city’s public utility is dependent on community support for a sustainable future. Every step of the path towards safe drinking water has a cost; from the treatment process, to the distribution system in the ground, to the men and women that work 24/7/365 to maintain the system. However, there is more to water than the “Balance Due” line at the bottom of the utility bill.

That’s why, during this 100th anniversary of the City of Mansfield’s water system, the department’s public education team is focusing attention on helping the community understand the value of the precious commodity the city provides, not only to encourage conservation but to give residents a look at what goes behind their monthly water bill.

“Our mentor told us once that ‘the true health and well-being of a community is wrapped in how citizens view their water, how much they know about their water, how well they treat their water sources’. That’s something that has stuck with us.” said Stephanie Zavala, public education specialist. “Community is at the core of our education and communication plans. At the end of the day it’s always about people, and for us its people’s relationship to earth’s most precious resource.”

While water may be a basic human right, it’s not free. Zavala said there are significant costs associated with the purchase, treatment, infrastructure and maintenance that are required 24/7/365. The majority of water utilities costs are fixed, meaning the utility has no control over them. These costs include the price of raw water, the chemicals and electricity required for treatment, as well as the debt service that pays for infrastructure in the ground.

Top Five Costs for Mansfield Water Utilities

“Balance that with a revenue source that is not fixed and based on the consumption of customers,” she said. “Imagine now that while revenue is based on consumption, there is a legal and moral responsibility of a utility to ensure efficient use of water to account for times of drought, population growth, and the future health of the community’s water resources.

“Simple, right?  Well, imagine your own household balance sheet. Household bills are typically fixed. Most people know what bills are coming in and about how much they will cost. What if, instead of a steady income to depend upon you had no control over how much income you were bringing in?  What if a water pipe broke in your kitchen?  Or you had a major sewer back up in your bathroom?”

Zavala said she understands that this is an extremely simplified metaphor for a complicated budgeting process. However the team hopes relating the process needs to manage and budget utility operations to residents’ household budgets will help them understand the process better; months and months of work and deliberation go into estimating future water consumption to budget for projected costs, both known and unknown.

A healthy, sustainable utility, the public education team says, is dependent upon its residents understanding the cost of water. Public education and communication is critical to ensuring this messaging is heard.

The team also wants residents to see the other side to water that is harder for those outside of the industry to hear. The human side.

In the summer of 2016, the public education team reworked the strategic education plan, and recently rewrote the strategic communication plan for water utilities. They started by creating a mission statement for the education plan that reads: “Community: to know our role in our communities; our industry, our utility, our municipality. To be a resource for our industry. To be family-oriented for our utility. To be a trusted ally for our citizens; patient, realistic, and sensitive to the complexity of our focus areas and the needs and values of our citizens.”

“Our job is to create educational programs and initiatives that provide value to our residents, but we also wear communicator hats for our division,” Zavala said. “It’s our job to not only be transparent in our communication with our customers but also to tell our story. People make better decisions when armed with accurate information. People retain this information more when it’s communicated in an authentic, creative manner. We want people to enjoy engaging with our division and its story.

Residents tour the Bud Ervin Water Treatment Plant.

Residents tour the Bud Ervin Water Treatment Plant.

For the public education team, water is actually a metaphor for something much bigger.

“From a basic sense, water is the second most important resource on Earth for human beings, second only to oxygen,” Zavala said. “Water is life, yes, but beyond that water is entwined in the human story. Water is central to the true health and well-being of a community. The way citizens view their water, how much they know about their water, how well they treat their water is reflected in the health and vitality of the community. Why?  A quote by Baba Diuom explains this relationship: In the end, we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we have been taught.”

“Our goal is to get people paying more attention to water,” said Arianne Shipley, public education specialist. “We handle both water and environmental services, so our new program name, Water 360, really emphasizes the way water impacts your life every single day from every direction. “This year marks 100 years of water service in Mansfield. It’s been a successful 100 years and we want to see that trend continue.”

 

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