A 2014 Year in Review: Speaking Up About Water and Climate Change Effects

Combating client change effects

It’s been a busy year for water…from one city’s reputation being negatively affected by water shut-offs to the effects of extreme drought on a state’s livelihood. We’ve been given a steady stream of news regarding fines for water wasters, how so-called “flushable” wipes are creating havoc on our nation’s water systems, and how progressive communities are saying yes to millions of dollars for water infrastructure upgrades.

We are hearing more about combating climate change effects, and this year, there was an increase in reports on how climate change effects the hydrologic cycle, impacts electric supplies, and creates water resource and security challenges (e.g., availability, use and management). EPA said that climate change is “changing our assumptions about water resources.”

Companies operating at the center of the water-food nexus and whose very existence is supported or threatened by the health of watersheds are stepping up to define and develop water sustainability policies. In late November, General Mills released a water policy that focuses on conserving, improving and protecting the watersheds upon which their business depends. The company has identified watersheds serving its supply chain and is taking steps to protect them.

This year, there has also been a shift towards a new vernacular – a shift in the language of water resulting in strong movement to unhook water from its history and language to: 1) improve comprehension of water issues; 2) stimulate water-sensitive and engaged communities; and 3) advance the goals of total resource management. We saw not only an upswell of terms like resource recovery, direct potable water reuse, and learning alliances, but an increase in stories delivering in clear terms the science behind water and its impact on society.

Fracking is now part of our dinner table discussions, and we know that subsidence is the term that describes what happens when land sinks because so much groundwater has been pumped out. We also became more familiar with cyanotoxin microcystin (well, maybe not all of us!) and algal blooms in Lake Erie when the “do not drink” advisories were issued in Toledo, Ohio.

From a water utility management perspective, there’s mounting evidence that the application of the “one water” management paradigm is stimulating economically resilient, sustainable, water-sensitive, and engaged communities, and is assisting in the important objective in changing the way that Americans view and value water. Water utilities are applying smart, resilient, sustainable and affordable solutions that are yielding more optimized systems, efficient water reuse, and innovative solutions that are reducing costs and improving water quality.

Similarly, innovations delivered as a result of strategic public-private partnerships and über-collaborations with engineering firms showcase how game-changing technologies and connectivity solutions can advance the performance of water utilities. My favorite 2014 example leverages machine-to-machine connectivity solutions to help revitalize communities, create jobs, and protect public health. The City of Cincinnati awarded CH2M HILL a water technology innovation project to design and implement an integrated water connectivity solution for sustainable water resource management.

The solution, which also involves collaborator Qualcomm Technologies, Inc., will enable Cincinnati to collect actionable information from its water system in a timely manner to improve water quality and facilitate the management of its water resources. These kinds of projects support smarter cities behavior and the resulting “success” data can be useful for informing stakeholder outreach and communication efforts.

I am also pleased to report that three key industry business books were published in 2014. IWA published the industry’s first book devoted to water communication. The book – Water Communication: Analysis of Strategies and Campaigns from the Water Sector – seeks to establish water communication as an academic domain, provides a general outlook on and retrospective on the history of communication in the water sector, and provides examples of communication campaigns on water.

The Value of Water: A Compendium of Essays by Smart CEOs was published and launched at 2014 WEFTEC in New Orleans by Donna Vincent Roa (me!) and The Value of Water Coalition. The book features thought-provoking essays about water and its value by CEOs from Xylem Inc., GE Power & Water, US Water Alliance, CH2M HILL, American Water, Hillsborough County Public Utilities, National Association of Water Companies, DC Water, Kohler, and others.

Another important 2014 water book, written by David L. Sedlak, a hydrological engineer and a professor in the Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering at UC Berkeley, Water 4.0: The Past, Present, and Future of the World’s Most Vital Resource provides compelling arguments for not taking water for granted, that our urban water supply systems must be reinvented, and that we must reevaluated the way we use and dispose of water.

From an association perspective, the American Water Works Association urged us during Drinking Water Week 2014 to “get to know your H2O,” the National Association of Water Companies sponsored one of the largest Earth Day celebrations in Dallas to “help bring much-needed attention to the critical water issues our nation faces,” and WEFTEC 2014 in New Orleans set an exhibition record and drew record numbers of over 20,000 water professionals. We launched The Value of Water Book at WEFTEC and it also premiered at the Frankfurt International Book Fair.

Regarding water’s path to purification (please, let’s delete the “toilet to tap” moniker!), as of November this year, there were only 10 projects nationwide that turn sewage to drinking water. Over the next few years, there will surely be more as public acceptance continues to grow and we have the technology innovations to leapfrog the number of utilities that can do so. For Orange County, CA, recycled water’s been such a good deal that the water district is spending $140 million to expand its capacity to purify wastewater by 30 percent.

My favorite infographic for 2014 is “Why Does the Energy Sector Need Water?” produced by the World Bank’s Thirsty Energy Initiative, which aims to address the water-energy interconnection through tools and frameworks that aid decision making and planning, improve modeling in both water and energy sectors, support regulatory reform and stimulate greater public and stakeholder involvement in developing solutions. The infographic’s key message is: “To ensure the long-term viability of energy investments and operations, and to protect water resources and the environment, energy and water must be managed in harmony.”

When occurrences like droughts and combatting climate change effects put a finer point on how new actions and new thinking are needed, recycled water, risk, resilience and water sustainability will become even hotter topics than they are now.

All in all, it was a somewhat bullish year for water and the water-communication nexus.

HOW ENVIRONICS CAN HELP

Environics is an integrated communications firm with PR in our DNA. We know how to target audiences with compelling messages to elicit action. From developing and implementing your communications strategy to facilitating media training to analyzing the performance of your campaigns, Environics can take your business to a higher plane of growth and profit. We help clients do their homework upfront, by getting the strategy right before investing their time and money in marketing implementation.


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Donna Vincent Roa

Accredited business communicator and water communication expert Donna Vincent Roa advises CEOs and senior executives who want to achieve excellence in high-stakes communication, position brand communication as a key enterprise asset, and maximize communication resources. She writes and speaks regularly about water issues and the role communication plays in enhancing our relationship with water.  Donna serves as Environics Communications’ water sector communication expert and strategist.


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