What Industry Professionals Do Is Not Treat Waste. It’s Make Clean Water.

How long before the industry’s default position is to emphasize ‘clean water’ instead of ‘wastewater’ or ‘sewage’? It’s time to stop taking baby steps.

Take a minute and try an experiment. Do an internet search under “clean water plant.” Then do a search under “wastewater treatment plant.”

Which one brings more results? When I tried this, I got 225,000 for “clean water plant” and 17 million for “wastewater treatment plant.” There’s a lesson here: The profession still mostly identifies with wastewater — that is, with the raw material, not the end product.

Why should this be? Why is it that news stories about any city renaming its facility to clean water (or to the Water Environment Federation’s preferred “water resource recovery facility”) are relatively few and far between?

Accent on the positive

It’s intuitively obvious that members of the public react negatively to the word “wastewater,” whether as a noun by itself or as a modifier for a building or an operator. It’s equally obvious that people respond favorably to “clean water.” So, why the hesitation?

We don’t refer to farms with Holstein cows as hay-processing centers. We call them dairy farms, and the name conjures all sorts of good things: milk, cheese, ice cream, yogurt. We don’t call big buildings with tall chimneys coal- or gas-combustion facilities. We call them power plants, and we associate them with keeping the lights on and schools and businesses operating.

So why continue to associate people who dedicate their careers to clean water, and the facilities they operate, with an unpleasant word like “wastewater”?

Tide of change

Why indeed, asked leaders of the Water Environment Association of Kentucky and Tennessee. The group has rebranded itself as Clean Water Professionals of Kentucky & Tennessee. The change (see this month’s In My Words feature) sets a great example that others in the industry should follow — operators, associations and cities alike.

How can something as simple as a change in terminology benefit the profession? Well, by showing utility customers what their monthly bills actually pay for. By giving a new generation of prospective operators a clear idea of the difference they can make by joining the profession. By giving operators a strongly positive note on which to start conversations about what they do.

One argument I’ve heard against the “clean water” branding is that average citizens might confuse it with the drinking water side. I can understand the concern, but I don’t see it as reason to hold back from making the change.

Organizations around the country have adopted the clean-water terminology with no negative effects that I’m aware of. Consider the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (formerly the Association of Metropolitan Sewerage Agencies). Look at the Oregon utility known as Clean Water Services (formerly the Unified Sewerage Agency).

And how about the Grandville, Zeeland and Wyoming clean-water plants in Michigan? Does anyone think any of these entities, given the chance, would go back to the way things were? A better question, perhaps, is why any entity in the clean-water industry would be content to remain with the “wastewater” status quo.

What do you think?

It’s time for this change — this emphasis on clean water — to roll like a big wave across the industry. It will improve the industry’s standing with the public. It will confer on people in the profession the stature and respect they have earned. What in the world are we waiting for?

Please share your thoughts. Do you think it’s time to move wholesale to industry branding built around clean water? Send me an email at editor@tpomag.com. I promise to answer, and we’ll print a selection of responses in a future issue of Treatment Plant Operator.


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