Tapping into the public’s value of water
Associations can help catalyze change for sustainable systems
Elevating the public value of water in Canada through a collaborative and concerted effort drives professionals like Steve Brubacher to be involved in organizations like the American Water Works Association (AWWA) and BC Water and Waste Association (BCWWA).
Public support is critical to informing water policy and legislation so the systems that deliver a universally life-sustaining resource, which have generally been long underfunded, are sustainable in the long term.
“If you don’t have the public on board with where the money needs to go, you’re going to fall on deaf ears,” Steve says. “It’s recognizing that it’s not just about convincing the politicians but rather getting the public to get behind the concept. That’s what it comes down to.”
Steve, who is a water practice leader at Urban Systems, says active involvement in industry associations like the AWWA and BCWWA brings an opportunity to contribute to larger change for the greater good — in this case, helping to ensure the sustainability and viability of water infrastructure that contributes to the health and vitality of communities.
He encourages colleagues to “become involved or volunteer where they have passion . . . because it’s one way to give back that has a direct impact on the work that they do, and direct influence in the area where they have expertise.”
“Here’s an opportunity to use their intellect and area of expertise to really help make a difference,” Steve says.
Actions to enhance public understanding of water’s intrinsic value were generated at the recent summit of the AWWA’s Canadian section. Steve, who chairs the AWWA’s Canadian Affairs Committee, says the summit takes place every three years to identify priorities and issues for water in Canada.
The country’s long-term infrastructure needs were examined at the 2013 summit, held in Calgary, and three highest impact areas for improving the situation were outlined, including increasing public value of water. Some of the actions discussed included engaging national media to help create a wider, collective awareness and groundswell of public care and concern around water. In Canada, it can be more difficult to rally the public at a national level because water is governed provincially rather than federally.
With their ability to reach a broader audience and direct connections to change makers, organizations like the AWWA and BCWWA can be a catalyst for change. Steve notes these groups of professionals in their fields are publicly viewed with a level of trust and objectivity when raising issues and can utilize their expertise and experience to come up with optimal solutions.
“I think associations are realizing now, and what we’re encouraging them to do, is to exercise their voice,” Steve says, adding for instance, that the BCWWA promotes Drinking Water Week in B.C. and engages communities to promote their drinking water systems. It’s an example of how associations can equip people with tools and resources to inform and bring the public on side.
“The benefit of the association is that we are a place where everyone can come together and talk about issues,” Steve says.
“We recognize we can play a role and gain public acceptance around water issues.”
Engaging the public on project work
Steve stresses it will take a collaborative and concerted effort to raise the value of water on the public’s priority list. Even communities are realizing the importance of public engagement in getting people behind projects.
“Even if it’s just a pipe in the ground, people need to understand the value of it; otherwise it remains out of sight out of mind and then you wonder why people don’t support the rate increases needed to support the infrastructure,” Steve says.
“We’re finally starting to make that connection,” he says. “Historically we’ve done public consultation as a necessity out of federal grant requirements as opposed to an enhanced value proposition. In order to make our work easier, we have to get the public behind what we’re doing.”
Steve says a key to gaining public support is engaging them as well as understanding their needs in order to come up with the best solution. “In more recent history, we’ve just assumed we can get whatever we want – everybody can have a fire hydrant or a pipe in the ground. That’s fine for a certain community density and size but there are still lots of places in Canada, in B.C., where that’s just not a cost-effective reality.”
In the Fraser Valley Regional District, for instance, water and sewer gap analyses have taken a cohesive approach to service delivery since the regional district spans communities of varying circumstances and conditions across hundreds of kilometres.
“By approaching water as a collective service, because we all need it, it’s making sure all decisions are in line with where they want to go in terms of protecting public health and the environment,” Steve says.
“Rather than reacting to hot spot issues, it’s trying to elevate to a level of leading in terms of where they want to go with their service and how they might get there.”
In another Alberta community, a rural service delivery strategy is focused not on building new infrastructure but enhancing monitoring of residents’ existing water cisterns and sewage collection tanks so they are emptied and filled when needed, because that’s their primary need and concern.
“This is a case where they’re taking a different approach by creating a 1-800 call number and putting monitoring equipment in all of the tanks – it’s a lower-cost solution that addresses rural needs,” Steve says.
He says it’s critical to understand public needs before assuming an infrastructure solution, which can avert the challenges now surfacing around long-term funding of water infrastructure’s operation, upkeep and repair.
Making infrastructure decisions in the public’s absence has created a disconnect between the public’s value of water and water systems and their willingness to support those systems.
“We’re recognizing that, and now we have to go back to first principles and ask people what they want, understand what their needs are and communicate what we’re doing to meet those needs. Then, they will support what we’re doing.”