WEF's membership newsletter covers current Federation activities, Member Association news, and items of concern to the water quality field. WEF Highlights is your source for the most up-to-the-minute WEF news and member information.

February 2012, Vol. 49, No. 1

Top Story

Devising a Communications Strategy for Utilities

With current budget constraints, many water and wastewater treatment utilities need to do more with fewer resources, and communications plans often are pushed aside. But the overall approval and support that various groups — including customers, media, government officials, and advocacy organizations — have for a utility can be the difference between a new project going forward or not and can determine the amount of time utility staff members spend to regain public support after a pipe breaks or an accident occurs.

Waiting to initiate communications strategy costs more in the long term
One of the largest mistakes utilities make is to only communicate to the public when there is need for approval or cooperation, rates have increased, or a problem has occurred, explained Sara Katz, founder and president of the communications firm Katz & Associates Inc. (San Diego). 

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A Clean Water Services (CWS; Hillsboro, Ore.) employee educates children about protecting water resources. Photo courtesy of Karen DeBaker, CWS communications manager. Click for larger image.

“[The communications component] really needs to be a consistent part of your operations,” Katz said. “I believe it’s a small investment of time and financial resources that can pay off handsomely in the future.”

In the long run, a successful communications strategy that provides easy-to-understand information can reduce costs from the amount of staff resources spent handling public backlash and the amount spent to fix problems caused by customer behaviors, such as flushing medications and fats, oils, and greases, Katz said.

Starting proactive communications with a plan 

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A new way that utilities can think about communications is to start being proactive rather than reactive, said Karen DeBaker, communications manager at Clean Water Services (CWS; Hillsboro, Ore.). And the very first thing utilities should do is create a strategic communications plan, she said.

To create a plan, look at what issues your utility has that require communications support, DeBaker said. Then, identify any challenges that prohibit the utility from accomplishing its goals, as well as any opportunities the utility has that can gain support for its efforts, she added. After you have identified these issues, challenges, and opportunities, decide on objectives you want to accomplish and develop key messages, she said.  

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CWS diversifies the methods used for communications, including giving tours of wastewater treatment plants (above) and messaging on their trucks (left).

DeBaker recommends coming up with three or four messages and tailoring them to different audiences. Both the messages and the media chosen to deliver them depend on the audience. “When you get into looking at the different layers of your public, they may have some general commonality, but they also have a lot of unique interests,” Katz said. To be effective, messages should be targeted at a specific audience and delivered in a way that will reach that audience, she added.

“You’re creating that road map,” DeBaker said. “It adds validity to your communications program and builds credibility for your organization.” A communications strategy brings utility employees together and makes messages consistent. “We want to make sure that we’re all speaking the same language and have the answers,” she said.

Keeping an open line of communication with staff on messages and protocol 
After a utility has devised a communications strategy, every staff member must know what the messages are and why they are there, because “everyone interacts with different types of audiences,” DeBaker said. This is important to ensure that the utility’s messages are consistent.

CWS sends updates on communications messages, outreach activities, and communications contacts for each project to staff through an electronic newsletter and equips those at the front desk, in customer service, and in the field with briefing papers on 10 common topics encountered, DeBaker said.

Staying up to date with your audience’s preferences 
To make sure that CWS is responding correctly to its audience, it relies on surveys. Overall customer awareness and satisfaction surveys are sent to all customers every 2 years, which provides the utility with baseline results that add validity to its communications program, DeBaker said. Smaller surveys and quizzes can be distributed at public events, online, on social media sites, and through the mail.  

DeBaker also recommends diversifying outreach on different media because, on average, one person gets information from seven different sources each day, she said. CWS communicates through its website; two electronic newsletters, one for staff and one for government officials; internal briefing papers and an intranet site; public tours; a speakers bureau of professionals equipped to talk about different topics at educational events; new-customer information packets; radio advertisements; Facebook and two Twitter accounts; electronic news releases; and postings on local news blogs, DeBaker said.

Developing a response to the hard questions 
DeBaker recognizes that many utilities do not have many resources or staff members to devote to communications and outreach. If nothing else, a utility should think of the questions that it doesn’t want to answer and come up with responses for them. “Try to think of the top five questions you don’t want to be asked and then have those answers ready to go,” DeBaker said.

DeBaker also recommends designating one person to communicate to the public and respond to media requests, she said. If a utility doesn’t respond, the media will find its own information. DeBaker recommends asking reporters for their deadline and the information they need, as well as making an effort to respond before that deadline, she said.

“The biggest service that they can do for their organization is to think of those top five questions, figure out who is going to answer those questions, don’t ignore the media, [and] don’t ignore the public,” DeBaker said.

DeBaker also recommends using resources that have already been created by other organizations and the government and using member associations to work with the public and educational outreach, she said. “This stuff’s already been done, and most likely they will give it to you for free because it’s public information,” she said. Clean Water Services-Communications 5-PSA Wipes Small  
CWS uses online banner advertisments to communicate to the public behavior changes that would benefit wastewater treatment. Photo courtesy of DeBaker. Click for larger image. 

“There’s actually a science to communications that, unfortunately, I think a lot of people discount,” Katz said. Make sure you aren’t starting in the position of a deficit in terms of public perception; put a face with a name, brand, and image in front of the public, she said.

— Jennifer Fulcher, WEF Highlights
WEF Member Organizations Hit the Streets To Educate the Public
DC Water and the Florida Water Environment Association host first annual educational events
Educating the next generation on the importance of water is a priority for many wastewater treatment utilities and professionals. And for the first time, two Water Environment Federation (WEF; Alexandria, Va.) member organizations have taken the lessons to the public.
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In fall 2011, the Florida Water Environment Association (FWEA; Orlando), a WEF Member Association, and DC Water, a WEF member, held outreach educational events teaching children about the importance of water.  

FWEA hosts educational activities for hundreds of children and adults  
More than 400 people attended FWEA’s Florida Water Festival on Oct. 22. The first annual event, held at Baldwin Park Village Center in Orlando, was held to teach students about water science and Florida’s water environment, and to teach the general public about water quality. Attendees were able to participate in activities and watch water quality demonstrations, according to the FWEA website.
Community members learn about water science and Florida's water environment at the Florida Water Environment Association (FWEA; Orlando) Water Festival. Photo courtesy of Greg Kolb, FWEA member and event chair. Click for larger image.

“We provided a broad range of educational activities,” said Greg Kolb, FWEA member and event chair. The activities covered the topics of the water cycle, surface water quality, water quality testing, hydraulics, potable water conservation, wastewater collection and conveyance systems, wastewater treatment systems, and beneficial use of biosolids, he added.

Attendees were able to test water using World Water Monitoring Day™ kits and see demonstrations on groundwater recharge, stormwater runoff, video inspection of sewers, biosolids treatment and beneficial use, and wastewater treatment operations, Kolb said. 

In addition more than 75 attendees, including adults and children, participated in a walk-for-water activity, during which they carried at least 3.8 L (1 gal) of water along a 0.8-km (0.5-mi) route to demonstrate how many people in developing countries have to carry water long distances on a daily basis. Activity participants received a raffle ticket for each gallon of water carried through the course. One attendee said that this event was “eye-opening” for her children about the conditions in other parts of the world, Kolb said. 

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The FWEA reached out to the community and teach them about water during the 2011 Florida Water Festival. Photos courtesy of Kolb. Click for larger images.
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Children also were able to participate in a scavenger hunt in which they had to answer water-related questions after taking part in festival activities and to participate in a water-color poster contest in which they were asked to draw their thoughts and ideas about water and ways to save it. The festival also featured Grease Fighter (a costumed superhero who made an appearance at the festival), raffle prize drawings, gift giveaways, face paintings of water-related animals, live music, and an FWEA/WEF information tent.

“It was a big success for a first annual event,” Kolb said. “We exceeded our attendance, sponsorship, and public education goals.”

Walk for water activity learned firsthand how many without water infrastructure have to carry water on a daily basis. Photo courtesy of Kolb. Click for larger image.

FWEA hopes to publicize the event through the media and increase attendance at next year’s event, Kolb said.

The festival’s 16 activities and interactive demonstrations were staffed by more than 60 volunteers from the University of Central Florida (Orlando), the American Society of Civil Engineers (Reston, Va.), Orange County (Orlando), the City of Mount Dora (Fla.), the Orlando Utilities Commission, Synagro (Houston), and GreenEdge (Gainesville, Fla.). It was funded through sponsorship by Brown and Caldwell (Walnut Creek, Calif.), CDM (Cambridge, Mass.), CH2M Hill (Englewood, Colo.), the City of Orlando, Synagro, the Orlando Utilities Commission, Parsons Brinckerhoff (New York), Wharton–Smith Inc. (Sanford, Fla.), GreenEdge, TSC–Jacobs (Tampa, Fla.), Toho Water Authority (Kissimmee, Fla.), MTS Environmental (Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.), Hazen and Sawyer (New York), and Electrical Design Associates (Orlando). 

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The Florida Water Festival featured children-focused events such as face painting (left) and coloring contest (above). Photos courtesy of Kolb. Click for larger images.
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“This FWEA event certainly reflects the serious public education commitment that WEF has long been known for,” said Nabil A. Muhaisen, FWEA president. “This event has provided our Member Association with an invaluable education opportunity that I hope will carry over to the next generation of water quality leaders in Florida.” 

DC Water hosts water festival for children 
On Oct. 28, DC Water held the Children’s Water Drop Festival in partnership with the District Department of Parks and Recreation and Watkins Recreation Center. More than 80 first- through fifth-grade students from Watkins Elementary School (Washington, D.C.) attended the free event, said LaDawne White, DC Water public affairs outreach specialist. The children participated in hands-on activities to learn about water-related issues, the watershed, and environmental challenges affecting local waterways, according to a DC Water news release.

“This festival was designed to teach our youngest consumers about the profound impact water has on our daily lives in a fun atmosphere,” White said. “We hope the children walked away with a greater awareness and appreciation of water, and were inspired to become stewards of this valuable resource.”

Fikremariam Tesfai, water quality specialist in DC Water’s Drinking Water Division, explains why chlorine is added to drinking water, and how to test for chlorine aboard DC Water’s water quality mobile lab. Photo courtesy of LaDawne White, DC Water. Click for larger image.

The featured exhibits included water testing, a simulated wastewater treatment system, a demonstration of how polluted runoff affects waterways, and a re-enactment of the water cycle, according to a DC Water news release. Students also were able to tour a mobile water quality lab and participate in recycling and water relays, the release says. Children attendees received informational handouts, activity books, pencils, water bottles, a souvenir t-shirt, and a group photo with DC Water’s mascot, Wendy the Waterdrop, the release says.

“Plans are already under way for the next Children’s Water Drop Festival, which will be held in the spring at a local school,” White said. 

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Thea Browne-Dennis, asset management technician in DC Water’s Department of Water Services, conducts onsite testings of water samples with students. Photo courtesy of White. Click for larger image.
— Jennifer Fulcher, WEF Highlights
WEF’s New Strategic Direction — A Decade in the Making but Well Worth the Wait
Matt Bond 2012

For those of you who do not know me, I am a detail-oriented, analytical guy. So when I am with some of my expressive Water Environment Federation (WEF; Alexandria, Va.) peers and we start to talk about the excitement of our strategic planning process, I finally understand that it is neither the process nor the analysis that excites most people. The excitement comes from the results, and I can assure you that every one of our members will be excited at the outcome of our year-long odyssey to establish a new strategic direction for WEF’s future.

The WEF Board of Trustees and staff worked throughout 2011 to evaluate all facets of WEF; give every WEF member the opportunity to provide input through surveys, focus groups, and interviews; and develop a future direction that responds to the needs of the water sector and WEF members. Our planning was extremely successful due to an enthusiastic, willing, and able Board of Trustees; excellent WEF staff leadership, especially our new Executive Director Jeff Eger; and great data from our consultant-assisted process, which involved obtaining data from our members, external stakeholders, and other nonprofit organizations.

Matt Bond, 2011–2012 WEF President

The result of our efforts is a new, bold strategic direction for WEF.

Our vision: WEF essential to water professionals around the world. This captures our aspiration to be an indispensable and vital part of your career.

Our mission statement: WEF’s Mission — to provide bold leadership, champion innovation, connect water professionals, and leverage knowledge to support clean and safe water worldwide. This illustrates how our strengths will be applied to our commitment to protect public health.

Our critical objectives: Drive innovation in the water sector, enrich the expertise of global water professionals, and increase awareness of the value of water. This will focus WEF on achieving the vision and mission.

Here are some of the key things we learned from you that helped shape WEF’s new direction:

  • WEF is the trusted source of unbiased technical and scientific information for our members and stakeholders in the water industry.
  • WEF has a great foundation to build upon, with excellent financial strength, a strong professional staff, and a great network of connected volunteers.
  • WEFTEC®, as the largest annual water technical conference and exhibition, is highly valuable to the water sector, tremendously successful, and continues to grow in size and influence.
  • Our members and Member Associations
    • value our ability to advocate for sound water policy,
    • appreciate access to technical information and training materials that can be delivered both at the global and local level, and
    • look to WEF to deliver compelling messages about the value of water and the need to invest in water infrastructure
  • Our members and external stakeholders want bold leadership for innovation in the water sector and in water research.
  • WEF is well-positioned to lead on emerging topics and opportunities in the water sector.

The WEF Board of Trustees is excited about the future of WEF and of the water sector. We eagerly anticipate your participation in our forward movement, and would like to hear from you. Let me know how our new strategic direction resonates with you, or more importantly, how you would like to get involved.

Read the strategic direction document for more details, send your comments or questions to WEFPresident@wef.org, and watch for some exciting announcements in the weeks ahead. Thanks to everyone for your involvement and commitment to WEF.

— Matt Bond, 2011–2012 WEF President
McDonogh School Receives Cutting-Edge Technology To Establish New Laboratory
Maryland students have the opportunity to work with microbial fuel cells

The McDonogh School in Owings Mills, Md., has received an important new addition to its science program: laboratory-scale microbial fuel cells. The fuel cells and the accompanying equipment, provided through a partnership with Bruce Logan of Pennsylvania State University (University Park), and Kershner Environmental Technologies LLC (Reisterstown, Md.), help form the new McDonogh Energy and Environment Nexus Laboratory.

Science students in McDonogh’s Upper School, grades 9 through 12, will be able to explore and manipulate the technology as the laboratory becomes integrated into the entire high school science curriculum. 

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Daniel Kershner (front), McDonogh School (Owings Mills, Md.) student, and Sarah Krolus (third from front), Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (Troy, N.Y.) student, learn how to make the membrane cathode in the microbial fuel cell labs at Pennsylvania State University (University Park). Photo courtesy of Rob Kershner of Kershner Environmental Technologies (Reisterstown, Md.). Click for larger image.

Microbial fuel cells are systems in which microorganisms convert organic solutions, such as those found in municipal and industrial wastewater, into electrical current that can be stored and used. Because the fuel cells represent a mixture of physics, chemistry, and biology, science teachers of all disciplines will use the laboratory as a teaching tool to demonstrate real examples of complex concepts, such as cell-surface electron transfer and kinetic-energy exchange.
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In addition to serving as a teaching tool, a select group of students interested in environmental science will have the opportunity to conduct their own research and run experiments throughout the year. Logan, one of the leading researchers on microbial fuel cell technology, will be an active supporter of these students and will be available to them for assistance in their pursuits. He said he hopes that this experimentation “stimulates an interest in both energy and environmental issues as important topics in their [the students’] lives.”

However, microbial fuel cells are far more than just sophisticated learning tools. Logan has been conducting extensive research on the technology since 2002 in an effort to foster sustainable wastewater infrastructure. His ultimate goal is for the technology to generate enough electricity to power wastewater treatment plants without any other energy supplement, he said.

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Above, Bruce Logan and Rob Kershner stand next to the Nexus Laboratory that was installed at McDonogh School in Owings Mills, Md. Left, the microbial fuel cell that 14 students have signed up to participate in the commissioning in March. Photos courtesy of Rob Kershner. Click for larger images.

Rob Kershner of Kershner Environmental Technologies, sponsor of the McDonogh School laboratory project, believes in advocating new and innovative technologies in the wastewater treatment industry.

“[Microbial fuel cells] are an exciting and unique concept in the world of science and engineering,” Kershner said. “They are the only emerging technology that serves to improve our water environment while simultaneously allowing our society to take another step towards a sustainable energy infrastructure. By exposing high school students to this new ‘living battery,’ I hope to encourage their steps into a science and engineering education and spark future innovation to bring this technology to commercial viability.”

Experience working with these fuel cells is designed to provide the students with insight into both the complexities of microbial fuel cells and the industries of wastewater treatment and clean energy production. The laboratory will encourage students to think about how scientific innovation, even if initiated on a small scale, has the potential to affect the overall environment, Kershner said.

“McDonogh is demonstrating to its students that we care about the future of our country and the need to harness alternative energies,” said Rob Smoot, an environmental science teacher at McDonogh.

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From left, Sarah Krolus and Daniel Kershner stand next to the Nexus Laboratory installed at McDonogh School. Photo courtesy of Rob Kershner. Click for larger image.
— Daniel Kershner, McDonogh School (Owings Mills, Md.), and Sarah Krolus, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (Troy, N.Y.)