Sneak Peek: Communication Essentials Workshop – Great Advice for Great Water Facility Tours

CASA & CWEA will co-host a Communication Essentials Workshop
October 18th in Oakland & 20th in Fountain Valley
Las Virgenes MWD provides public tours for hundreds of customers each year.

Las Virgenes MWD provides public tours for hundreds of customers each year. Credit: LVMWD

It is vital to communicate with the public about the realities of the large financial investments in our water and wastewater facilities. Public tours are one of the best forms of outreach water professionals can offer. But some plant personnel find the thought of leading a public tour daunting. What to say? What to do?

Once any initial misgivings about public speaking are overcome, being a tour guide can be fun and educational. Tours are essential for building public trust and support for future projects.

Tours also demonstrate the knowledge, skills and professionalism of California water and wastewater operators. We maintain some of the highest clean water standards in the world. We can take pride in what we do to protect the public and the environment. The more the public sees up close, the more they get to know us, the more they’ll offer in support for water projects.

So, what steps should you take to conduct a great tour?

Jeff Reinhardt, LVMWD

We asked one of California’s great water communicators, Jeff Reinhardt, the Public Affairs and Communications Manager for the Las Virgenes Municipal Water District, to share his experiences. The District offers a popular facility tour that continues to draw a full contingent of participants, every quarter for the last 14 years.

Jeff’s top tour tips are:

  1. Schedule it on a Saturday and make sure it’s well publicized
  2. Guest reservations with a name and phone number are a must
  3. Avoid technical jargon, keep it light and easily understood
  4. Emphasize the agency’s role in protecting public health and the environment
  5. Provide a “take home” handout that illustrates the process

Reinhardt’s entire career is focused on communication. He joined the District in 2003, with previous  experience in broadcasting and sports marketing. Jeff is also leading our profession forward as chair of CASA’s Communications Workgroup.

You can hear more from Jeff and expand your communication skills at the CASA-CWEA Communication Essentials Workshop on Oct 18th in Oakland and Oct 20th in Fountain Valley.

How did you first get involved in facility tours?
In 2003 the Las Virgenes – Triunfo Joint Powers Authority (JPA) began the process of renewing our NPDES (National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System) permit. We were presented with significant demands to increase our treatment processes to meet very stringent standards for nitrogen and phosphorus discharge. These standards were significantly greater than the standards required for potable water.

Faced with costs of up to $200 million to upgrade the 9-10 MGD (Million Gallons per Day) tertiary-treatment plant, serving only 30,000 customers, we embarked upon a program to fully engage the public, so they could understand the costs associated with these requirements, and their stake in the outcome.

Part of that outreach program involved organizing facility tours.

CommEssent-bannerHow well are the facility tours received?
We started quarterly tours, and I thought interest would die out. But here we are, 13 years later, and the tours are still full. There is a lot of interest in the public about what we do and the environmental impact of treatment systems.

We rent a bus for each tour, and take approximately 45 people. The public tours are held on Saturdays, starting at 8:30 in the morning, and we try to be finished by 1 pm, so they have the rest of their day free. The tours are geared for adults, but we allow children over 10 years of age if accompanied by a responsible adult.

How do you publicize the tours?
We use a variety of media. We place ads in the local weekly newspaper, on our website, and use social media. But word of mouth seems to be very effective, especially as we’ve been running the tours for a number of years now.

How technical are the facility tours?
We bring the people into our facility first, and give them a continental breakfast while we do a PowerPoint presentation on issues, outline the treatment process, and how this relates to them.

For instance, we are not allowed to discharge into Malibu Creek between mid-April and mid- November because of algae growth in the watershed. However, observation shows much of the algae occurs above the discharge point to the creek, so not all of the algae growth can be attributed to effluent from the treatment facility. It’s important the public know that their actions have effects. Fertilizing their lawns and then over-watering creates runoff carrying nutrients into the watershed, which can cause algae growth.

After we’ve done the presentation, we board the bus to the treatment plant, stopping at various points of interest along the way, including Malibu Creek.

At the treatment plant we show them the processes used for treatment. We also view our solar power system which is used to power pumps sending recycled water to irrigation. One of my favorite quotes about our solar power system came from Senator Fran Pavley who said we “use a renewal resource to pump a renewed resource”.

We also show them our composting facility where biosolids are converted into USEPA ‘Class A Exceptional Quality’ compost, suitable for use on crops grown for human consumption.

While being informative, we also try to keep the tours light and entertaining as well. We have many famous people in the area, so we sometimes refer to our plant as ‘treating the effluent of the affluent’.

We finish off the tours with a short Q&A session.

Las Virgenes MWD tours are led by water professionals and include a tour of the agencys biosolids composting facility.

Las Virgenes MWD tours are led by water professionals and include a tour of the agency’s biosolids composting facility, shown here. Credit: LVMWD

Who guides the tours?
We try to make the best use of the talents available to us at the plant, and have real experts do the technical content. For instance, our staff biologist is the person who talks about impacts on the watershed, creek chemistry and also talks about the microbes that help treat the sewage. We take a sample from the tank and show the microbes at work under a microscope.

We also invite JPA board members to participate in the tours by welcoming guests. The experience helps to personify the organization. The public sees the staff and board members instead of perceiving it as a faceless entity.

What are the benefits to giving facility tours?
Water & wastewater treatment is complex. All the public normally sees of our operations is the 8” between the tap and the drain. The tours enable them to see the complexities involved in collection, treatment, recycling and discharge in a way that is not readily evident from the street. Many times on our tours we’ll stop and explain that underground, unseen, is a maze of pipes, pumping stations and other infrastructure. It all costs money to operate & maintain.

We also explain that previously there was federal and state assistance for funding upgrades and new facilities, but no more. The tours show local ratepayers where their money is going.

They also get to see our professional operators and well maintained facilities. I’ve heard more than one tour participant say “I’ll never complain about my bill again!”

How was your permit process impacted by the tours you gave in 2003?
By the time we got to the permit hearing in 2005, we were able to have 120 homeowners attend. They were there to make sure their money was used wisely, and through their involvement we were able to get a permit we could live with. There is an upper limit to what is achievable and sustainable while still protecting public health and the environment. There are those who want the best treatment available. Quite often they are not the people who must pay for that level of treatment.

Well informed ratepayers are better equipped to make decisions when we do have incremental increases in order to pay for mandated treatment upgrades, as well as maintenance and the eventual replacement of our aging infrastructure.

Have you seen long term benefits from the facility tours?

Definitely.

We register our tour participants, so we have a growing list of homeowners and ratepayers we can contact for participation in ongoing permit renewal processes, which were held again in 2010 and will come up again this year.

We also use the opportunity to let them know we work hard to keep our facilities operating efficiently but we need their help to keep costs down. So, we’ll ask them to help us out by not flushing coffee grounds, wipes, or by doing something as simple as taking the plastic label off fruit peels so that the plastic labels don’t form clogs in our facilities. They want to see their money being used responsibly.

A better informed public is beneficial to everyone, and the facility tours are an excellent way to accomplish this.


Please join Jeff for his presentation on ‘Building Community Trust through Facility Tours” as part of the upcoming CASA-CWEA Communications Essentials Workshop on Oct 18th in Oakland and Oct 20th in Fountain Valley. Register online >

About the Author

Megan Barillo

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