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WaterOperator.org Blog

Articles in support of small community water and wastewater operators.

Public Advisories: They're Not Just for Emergencies

In the wake of Flint and similar events, questions about the effectiveness of public notification requirements are on the minds of many. In fact, the U.S. House of Representatives earlier this year voted 416-2 in support of a bill that would strengthen notification requirements related to lead levels. With concerns and emotions high, it can be difficult to remember that the best public notification procedures are about much more than emergency response and compliance.

In their Drinking Water Advisory Communication Toolbox, the Centers for Disease Control encourages drinking water systems to use advisories to

  • Provide information—An advisory may be issued when consumers need to receive important information by do not need to take any action. For example, a water system may issue and advisory to inform households about seasonal changes in water taste.
  • Encourage preparedness—Advisories may help customers prepare for a planned disruption in service or anticipated water quality threats. Advisories may affect a small area, such as during distribution system construction or repair. Advisories also can urge customers to prepare for a large area event, such as an approaching hurricane. This type of advisory alerts people to water or listen for more information.
  • Recommend action—Advisories may tell customers to take specific actions, such as to boil water or use bottled water. These advisories may be issued as a precaution or in response to a waterborne disease outbreak.
  • Meet public notification requirements—Advisories are required by the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) when specific circumstances exist. The SDWA requires communication with customers when the water system does not comply with a regulation.  

Water operators and communities are undoubtedly quite familiar with the reasons and requirements for the final two uses. But the value of the others may not be as apparent.

In addition to be being good business practices, issuing informative and preparedness advisories can actually help utilities garner community buy-in and help rate payers understand the time, hard work, and other resources that go into delivering clean, safe water. If all customers hear is bad news, they won’t be eager to support the local public system. Notifying people when water main repairs may close roads or when drilling a new well will provide the community with a new resources can change public perception of a utility and its staff.

The CDC toolbox is a great resource for small systems looking to improve their public notification procedures, but operators with lingering questions can visit our Documents Database or contact us directly at info@wateroperator.org. And be sure to check back here for a follow-up post on media platforms and available services that can help get the word out. 

What We Can Learn from Flint

It’s not often that drinking water gets in-depth news coverage and front page headlines, but I think we’re all just sad that it happened this way. The story of Flint, Michigan’s drinking water crisis has unfolded over nearly two years, but the national media attention escalated rapidly in the past month.

I believe I speak for every one of our WaterOperator.org readers when I say this just hits too close to home. This is our industry, these are our friends and colleagues, and of course, the people of Flint are our neighbors in trusting that tap water will always deliver.

There’s no role for blame because we’ve all lost on this one. And when you go beyond the issues of oversight, social justice, and politics, there’s a story about the challenging decisions that operators, utility managers, and local government officials make day-to-day. These jobs have aways been hard, but we now have an opportunity to grow, change, and do better.

This could have happened anywhere, but it doesn’t have to happen in your community. Here’s what everyone can learn from Flint:

Unintended consequences are real.

The story of Flint highlights the critical balancing act required to serve drinking water that meets every standard. One change (large or small) can have cascading effects on the entire treatment train and distribution system, so decisions should not be made lightly. Appendix C (Guidance for Evaluating Impacts of Treatment Changes on Distribution Systems) and D (Tools for Evaluating Impacts of Treatment Changes on Lead and Copper Rule Compliance) within the Simultaneous Compliance Guidance Manual are solid, first-step references.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

State and federal agencies are made up of people who care about what they do. So not only is it their job to help systems make better decisions, they want to do the right thing. They also know others with additional technical expertise, including researchers and technical assistance providers, who can consult with you at no cost. Ask for assistance when planning changes or as soon as you know there is a problem. If you’re not sure whom to contact, here’s the list of primacy agency websites. You can also contact us (info@wateroperator.org) and we’ll find someone who can help.

Public health is the priority.

A water system’s ultimate job is not to meet compliance, but to provide safe drinking water and protect public health. Regulations are the baseline mechanism for getting there, but thinking holistically about what’s logical can prevent unintended consequences. There are certainly flaws in the Safe Drinking Water Act regulations, so the Water Supply Guidance (WSG) manual offers policy statements and clarifications on intent as a starting point.

Trust is easier to break than restore.

It is always better to act out of an abundance of caution and be wrong, than it is to do nothing out of fear. Early, active, and consistent public communication (even when the answers are still uncertain) will go far to maintain the public’s trust in the water system and the local government. We’ve compiled some of the best resources on risk communication requirements and best practices.

The situation in Flint is more than unfortunate, but we can all reduce the chance that it will happen again and be more prepared to react in any emergency situation. Our thoughts are with each and every one of you working beyond measure to make this right.

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