A major pump company looks to jump-start public awareness of water infrastructure challenges, celebrate operators’ roles and help utilities gain support for their initiatives
The nation’s water and wastewater infrastructure needs huge investment. The 2017 Infrastructure Report Card from the American Society of Civil Engineers gives wastewater systems a D-plus and drinking water systems a D.
The society estimates that wastewater systems will need $271 billion over the next 20 years to meet current and future demands. Meanwhile, the American Water Works Association has estimated that $1 trillion will be needed to maintain and expand service over the next 25 years. At the same time, utilities face resistance to rate increases that make system improvements possible.
What’s to be done? One thing that’s essential, according to executives with pump manufacturer Grundfos, is for community residents to understand the problem and appreciate the roles of the people who operate the treatment plants, wastewater collection systems and water distribution networks.
To that end, the company has launched the “Who Runs the Water that Runs America” initiative. It aims to help water and wastewater utilities raise public awareness of the challenges they face and to celebrate the professionals who keep water flowing for homes and businesses.
By way of a website (us.grundfos.com/whorunsthewater.html), the program provides tools to help utilities communicate with their publics. These include a video template utilities can customize with their own information and pictures. Also in the package are posters and other items for sharing on social media and websites and in newsletters. There’s also information that helps consumers learn about the water cycle and water usage, an interactive water footprint calculator, water-saving tips, and a map of water prices across the U.S.
Rob Montenegro, executive vice president, and Andrew Hider, vice president of marketing, with Grundfos Water Utility, shared their thoughts on the initiative in an interview with Treatment Plant Operator.
TPO: The problems with the nation’s water infrastructure are well-known. Why is a communications program like this necessary?
Montenegro: In my humble opinion, the problems with infrastructure are not well-known to the general public. I’ve been active in the water and wastewater business for close to 30 years, and while the numbers have changed over that time, the gap has been and remains substantial in terms of funding that’s needed — not even to modernize our infrastructure, but to get it up to legitimate standards where we’re not wasting 11 percent of our water, we’re not having sewage overflows, and we’re not having pipe bursts.
TPO: What’s the basic issue with public perceptions of water utilities and their services?
Montenegro: Most people take these services for granted. They open the tap at the kitchen sink, water comes out and they make their tea or coffee. They flush the toilet and stuff goes away somewhere. The fact is that utilities are under pressure to keep these systems working as effectively as possible, as efficiently as possible, and at the lowest overall cost of operation.
TPO: Why is it important for a manufacturer to lend a hand in this way?
Montenegro: As a leader in sustainability and energy efficiency in pumping systems, we feel well positioned to help bring these issues to light in the public consciousness. We’re passionate about helping to make our country a better place. I know that water industry operators share that passion and are looking for ways to share it with the communities they serve. We see it as our responsibility to help make the case and create awareness of these issues.
TPO: What are you hearing from water and wastewater operators around these issues?
Montenegro: I’ll give you a great example. I talked to an operator at a large wastewater treatment plant in Texas. I asked what his biggest challenges were. He said, “People don’t understand the service we’re providing.” I hear that from operators all the time, everywhere I go. I went through our whole program with this operator, and he said, “This is great. Now I can use this as a way to explain to our community what we’re doing.”
TPO: How does your program enable utilities to communicate more easily than they could on their own?
Montenegro: We’ve given them templates they can use. We offer a great deal of information about how much water it takes to do basic things, how much water the average American uses, and how their customers might be able to save some of that water. We’ve provided a water usage test so that, based on their lifestyles, people can determine how much water they use and steps they can take to reduce that amount. We’ve created professional resources that many smaller and midsize utilities don’t have at the ready.
TPO: What specifically will you do to ensure that utilities are made aware of these resources and use them?
Montenegro: We’re asking our sales team and our network of independent representatives and distributors to go out and promote this program to the municipalities, so they know about the tools we offer and how to use them. We’re doing outreach to quite a long list of municipalities directly. We’re reaching out with one-on-one calls. Our representatives are adding links to the campaign on their websites.
Hider: We’re also doing a public communications campaign talking about these issues. We’re using newswire services and public relations to disseminate the information. Among other things, we’ll talk about the challenges facing water professionals and about how Americans pay only a fraction of what water is worth. Americans pay some of the lowest rates in the world for our water, yet we consume the most.
TPO: How does this program dovetail with programs being conducted by industry organizations like WEF and AWWA?
Montenegro: Ours is an independent program, but certainly the basic messages are the same. We have a funding gap, we have a group of dedicated professionals who are working on our water and wastewater resources, and with additional public awareness we can elevate the profile of these issues.
TPO: What would you say about the timing for launch of this initiative?
Hider: The timing is right. We’re hearing a lot about infrastructure investments that need to be made in the United States. Now is the time to increase the focus on some of the most overlooked areas of our infrastructure, and that’s what sits below the ground, both on the drinking water and wastewater sides. There are many stakeholders in the water industry, and it’s about everyone pulling together. Collectively, across all the many organizations, we should be able to raise awareness and start addressing the near-term and long-term issues that face our infrastructure.
A lot has changed in the last three to four years as people have realized that their area could be like California, which has been in a drought, or like Flint, Michigan, where there is concern about water quality. These issues have been moved more front and center, so that people are going to start paying attention to infrastructure and how water gets delivered to their homes.
TPO: Ultimately, what would you like to see happen as a result of this initiative?
Montenegro: We want conservation to happen. We want to see the infrastructure investments made that are necessary to keep our water flowing and our wastewater being treated. If we can convert one municipality to the cause, and then the next one, and the next one, and begin to get the public at large to embrace water conservation measures, then that’s a win. And when operators go to their local schools to raise awareness of what they’re doing, and as they attract believers in conservation and sustainable practices at home and at work, that will be a victory for this program.
Water by the numbers
Here are some facts and figures included in the Grundfos “Who Runs the Water that Runs America” initiative:
- Many pipes, pumps, sewers and other water infrastructure components are more than 70 years old
- 78 percent of our water comes from surface sources (lakes, rivers and reservoirs) and 22 percent from groundwater
- It takes 634 gallons of water to produce a hamburger, 4,095 gallons to produce a steak, 2,900 gallons to make a pair of jeans
- Water leaks in an average household can account for more than 10,000 gallons per year — the amount it takes to wash 270 loads of laundry