‘Silent’ No More

The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department’s public outreach program includes profiles of those who help protect local water resources.
‘Silent’ No More
Mary Alfonso

Interested in Education/Training?

Get Education/Training articles, news and videos right in your inbox! Sign up now.

Education/Training + Get Alerts

Mary Alfonso believes water and wastewater are the “silent utilities” in most communities, largely unnoticed and not appreciated until something goes wrong.

As public affairs manager for the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD), Alfonso is part of an effort launched 16 years ago to raise the profile of water and wastewater services in Detroit and in the surrounding communities and counties that are the department’s wholesale customers.

Alfonso is part of a Public Education Work Group that earned the 2012 Educational Professional of the Year Award from the Michigan Water Environment Association. It was the first time the MWEA gave the award to a group, rather than to one person.

The Public Education Work Group is part of a much larger public outreach effort that seeks to raise awareness of cooperation between the DWSD and its partners and of the contributions made by people in a variety of professions who take care of the wastewater and water systems. Alfonso talked about the outreach program in an interview with Treatment Plant Operator.

TPO: How did this public outreach program get started?

Alfonso: The collaborative approach started on the wastewater side in 1997, which was about 10 years before I got here. In 2003 we established a similar partnership on the water side. A main reason for forming those partnerships was to enable us to operate as more than an entity that delivered a bill. We wanted to build relationships with the people we served so that we could work together on common issues.

DWSD serves the City of Detroit but also wholesale customers, which are surrounding cities and counties. We realized that we all wanted the same thing: to provide excellent service to our customers in the most effective and efficient way we could. We all had a stake in the system, whether wholesale or retail customers.

In 1997, we decided to try to bring a group together as we were creating a long-term combined sewer overflow program. We formed the Wastewater Steering Committee. It started to enhance trust between customers and the DWSD.

TPO: What exactly is the Wastewater Steering Committee and what does it do?

Alfonso: The Wastewater Steering Committee consists of one representative each from the DWSD and three wholesale customers. It’s an umbrella under which we have smaller work groups. We have a Best Practices Work Group, a Rates Work Group and a Wet Weather Work Group. We also have a Public Education Work Group that straddles both the wastewater and water sides.

TPO: Why did DWSD and its partners launch a public education initiative?

Alfonso: There had been long-standing perceptions that it was a case of Detroit against the suburbs, or the suburbs against Detroit. That was really frustrating, because we had been collaborating on a lot of issues for years. We weren’t always successful in getting out the good stories about how we worked together.

Another reason we started this was that water and sewer are often the silent utilities. You turn your tap and water comes out; you flush your toilet and the waste goes away. People don’t think about where it goes and what has to be done to it, or  what it takes to get the water to your tap. There are people who work 24/7 in many fields — engineers, scientists, the people who install and fix the pipes, the people who test the water to make sure it’s safe and meets all the government requirements, and the people who make sure wastewater meets effluent limits and is clean enough to return to the receiving water. So we decided to do some self-promotion and self-publishing and tell our side of the story.

TPO: What is the structure and function of the Public Education Work Group?

Alfonso: I serve as the lead representing the DWSD. There is also a member from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, as well as representatives from several wholesale customers. We meet six to eight times a year.

The main initiatives are keeping and developing relationships with all our retail and wholesale customers and working to develop solutions to shared challenges. Sometimes through the work group we get input or suggestions from customer communities that make us think about things differently. Sometimes that improves the way we approach the problems. It becomes a shared solution, as opposed to DWSD or the customer communities being on their own.

TPO: What channels do you use for connecting with your public?

Alfonso: We have an online Outreach Portal at www.dwsdoutreach.org. There is a public page and a registered user login. The registered user side is for people who are actually part of the outreach program. There we store meeting minutes and other documents so they’re accessible to all the people who are registered users of the system.

I also produce two newsletters. One is “In the Flow,” a quarterly newsletter we send to our wholesale customer base and to all the elected officials who live in the service territory where DWSD or our customers have a footprint.

Twice a year I also put out a “Detroit Residential Newsletter” for our retail customers. It’s more Detroit focused, but we still share the collaborative approach we’ve taken with our wholesale customers over the years, so people can see that we work together. We deliver that newsletter by email to neighborhood community organizations, block clubs and similar groups. We also attend many meetings of those groups, and I pass out copies of our publications to people there.

TPO: Tell us about the Operation Clean Water initiative. What does that encompass?

Alfonso: Operation Clean Water was an idea that came from Public Education Work Group. The aim was to put stories into mainstream media as well as local media in the communities we serve. Once a year in planning, we look at what we need to focus on. Generally, we try to push out three to four articles a year. The articles go onto the Outreach Portal. We’ve been fortunate to have the MWEA publish our articles on a pretty regular basis. And our wholesale customers can take the articles and reuse them, such as if they have newsletters in their communities.

One of our first articles was “Managing the Storm.” Detroit, like most older cities, has a combined system, as do many of our wholesale customers. The story is about how we work when we know there’s a storm coming. It’s really a team effort. It’s Detroit and our community partners monitoring the weather and in communication constantly making sure those flows are held so they can be treated before release to the environment.

TPO: What have you done to raise awareness of the people responsible for the collection and treatment systems?

Alfonso: We publish a series of Faces of Wastewater and Faces of Water profiles. We wanted to showcase people in the various positions. We did several series of profiles on the water side, and then we moved over to the wastewater side and have done two series there. The profiles also serve as an education tool to tell people about career opportunities in our industry.

TPO: What has been the reaction to the Faces profiles?

Alfonso: The first series was so successful that we immediately thought we were on to something and decided to keep going with it. Some of our customer communities have taken those stories and posted them on their websites.

TPO: What is the reaction to the Faces series from the people you profile?

Alfonso: They’re excited. They’ve never been involved in something like this before. Some of them were very shy in the beginning, but once they understood what we were trying to do, we had really good participation.

I was happy to showcase the work done by all the people who manage our systems. It brings a different perspective — suddenly people realized that we have committed, dedicated employees who work around the clock to make sure the system is safe and is working up to its potential. It’s a legacy to maintain it and operate it well for all those who come after us. Water is a pretty vital part of everyday life.

TPO: In the big picture, how would you describe the results of your outreach program and the Public Education Work Group?

Alfonso: I would say our communities are better informed and more knowledgeable. People are more engaged, and they know they have opportunities to air issues, raise concerns and bring a recommendation on how we can improve our relationships.

Four times a year we have meetings of the Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) on the water side with attendance of 60 to 80 people. The Wastewater Steering Committee meets two to three times a year, and those meetings are attended by DWSD and county representatives. We break into smaller groups and go through exercises that help us focus and plan for going forward: things we want to work on, things we may not have thought about, things that need attention. It’s a very open forum.

TPO: What advice would you give to other clean-water agencies about the importance of reaching out to the public?

Alfonso: People really need to know what you do. Whether you serve 20,000 people or millions, it’s important to make people aware of the vital service you provide and make sure they understand how important it is to protect and preserve it, and to support the people who show up every day and do the jobs they do.


Comments on this site are submitted by users and are not endorsed by nor do they reflect the views or opinions of COLE Publishing, Inc. Comments are moderated before being posted.