Its Own Story

A California water district makes sure the public understands its stability in the midst of economic turbulence
Its Own Story
The Water-Wise demonstration garden features colorful plants that can tolerate heat and dry conditions.

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After a survey showed that fewer than half of Mesa Consolidated Water District’s customers knew the independent utility was their water provider, the utility’s leaders decided in 2009 to step up communications. Their decision was rewarded with the California Special District Association (CSDA) 2011 Exceptional Public Outreach award for large districts.

Mesa Water is a special district with more than 110,000 customers in suburban Orange County. The 18-square-mile district serves most of the City of Costa Mesa, parts of Newport Beach, and some unincorporated areas, including John Wayne Airport.

Mesa Water is governed by an elected five-member board of directors. Still the 2008 survey found that many customers assumed their water service came “from the city.” That confusion was a problem for several reasons, says Stacy Taylor, the communications manager hired to improve the district’s visibility.


Building knowledge

Mesa Water, established in 1960, has a strong financial record, and its leaders worried that customers were lumping it in with a city that, like many in California, was having financial difficulty, leading to reduced services and a loss of jobs. “It became apparent that it was important to get the district’s story out,” Taylor says.

That story, the board concluded, needed to include a history of the district, a report on its record of providing a safe and reliable water supply, and its financial stability. Plans included programs to establish brand awareness, extend existing outreach, improve day-to-day communications with the public, and establish transparency about financial matters.

With water shortages facing many California communities, the board added a goal to increase consumer knowledge of water issues in general. Foremost, however, was to establish the district’s identity. “People didn’t know who was providing their water, and if they don’t know where their tap water is coming from, it’s hard to get their attention with a water conservation message,” Taylor says.


Multiple channels

Taylor worked closely with media outlets, supplying news releases and background papers to keep them aware of Mesa Water’s activities and plans. According to the CSDA contest entry, the district’s print and online media coverage in 2010 was 30 times better than in 2009.

Taylor used multiple routes to reach customers, from a bimonthly newsletter delivered with water bills to conservation tips offered in print and on the district’s website. Taylor even posted time-lapse webcam images of progress at a major construction project.

To bolster the conservation message, Mesa Water established a Water Use Efficiency Award to recognize non-residential customers who reduce annual water consumption. The district also maintains two Water-Wise Garden plots to demonstrate how customers can landscape with plants that require less water in the Southern California climate. One garden is at Mesa Water headquarters, and the other is part of the demonstration farm at the Orange County Fairgrounds. The gardens also demonstrate good irrigation tactics and the use of mulch to reduce the need for watering.

Taylor believes the conservation message is working because the district recorded an 8 percent reduction in per capita water consumption from 2009 to 2010.


Special events

To celebrate the utility’s 50th anniversary, the board hosted a VIP event for regional business and civic leaders where speakers and handouts detailed the district’s story. The event was supplemented by a series of presentations board members made at meetings of the Costa Mesa City Council and a number of local civic groups. These served to reinforce the benefits provided by an independent special district, promote Mesa Water as an industry leader, and encourage wise water use.

Not all of the outreach efforts were new. The district’s Water Issues Study Group (WISG) celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2010. Up to 50 people a year sign up for the free program, which features a series of monthly informational sessions.

Traditionally, the class has included six sessions, but the district has compressed it to four in 2012 to attract more participation. Topics include an overview of California water issues, Mesa Water’s history, water conservation, and a roundtable including a water advocacy expert and representatives from a local environmental organization and a local university. The final session includes a graduation ceremony and a class reunion for past participants.


Getting them involved

“It’s a good way to educate our community; to get them using water mindfully, and to get them spreading the message,” says Taylor. “One couple we got involved is now including items about Mesa Water in the community blog they do for their homeowners’ association.”

Jim Fitzpatrick, who owns a hand car wash business he designed specifically for low water use and zero runoff, was already deeply interested in water issues, but he enjoyed the program so much that he went back for a second year. He calls it an effective way to educate Mesa Water customers. “Their story is complicated, and you can’t just tell it in a newsletter or a few Web pages,” he observes.

Because the program can go into greater depth about the water district and its operation, Fitzpatrick says, “It inspires action. It allows for an informed customer who graduates as an ambassador to the community.”

Word of the WISG program has spread and Taylor says, “Other water districts are modeling their adult education efforts after ours.” The Mesa Water board was so pleased with the results of the outreach that it boosted the communications budget by 20 percent in 2011-12.

Says general manager Paul E. Shoenberger, P.E., “Mesa Water appreciates the importance of communicating the benefits of a safe and reliable water supply to our constituents.”


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