The work done by water and wastewater utilities has far-reaching impact across the local community and yet many people don't fully understand what it entails. That's not terribly surprising given the predominantly buried nature of water and wastewater assets, and a widespread disconnect between the value of water and the cost of service.
One way to address this challenge is by engaging with your legislators, from the local level all the way up to the federal level. "A lot of what we end up having to do in our world begins and ends with legislators in their efforts to create laws or to provide levels of funding," said Philip Guerin, director of water and sewer operations for the city of Worcester, Mass. "So it's really important that they hear from us because they hear from other groups who say a lot of things relative to the work we do that may or may not be accurate."
"We need them to understand what we do," agreed Janine Burke-Wells, executive director of the Warwick Sewer Authority (R.I.) and incoming president of the New England Water Environment Association (NEWEA), "and we need them to support necessary rate increases that are going to be required because we have a lot of work to do still in wastewater and water infrastructure."
"It's also important that we support them," added Jennifer Kelly Lachmayr, vice president at Arcadis and incoming vice president for NEWEA, "that the legislators understand where the resources are when they have difficult questions and when difficult issues come up across the country."
If you haven't already established a relationship with any of your legislators, it's not too late to start and it doesn't have to be a big, elaborate endeavor. "The simplest thing is pick up the phone and call your legislator," suggested Guerin. "They are very willing to meet and discuss issues but you need to initiate that." It doesn't have to be about any specific issue; it could just be about getting to meet each other, he said. "Developing a relationship is really what it's about," he added, "so that going forward, when you have an issue, they already know who you are, they know what you're about."
Engaging with your legislators can go a long way toward getting your voice heard — or protecting your interests when it comes to getting laws passed or funding secured. Burke-Wells recalled how having an established relationship with her state senators proved to be invaluable after her treatment facility was completely flooded in 2010. "The federal delegation came and visited during the flood," she said. "They were able to get us 90 percent reimbursement from FEMA through legislation at the federal level and also were able to secure some energy funds for reconstruction." It was very, very valuable and it was eye-opening to them as well, she noted.
To get started, Burke-Wells suggested reaching out to any professional associations you might belong to. For example, NEWEA, which is the New England chapter of the Water Environment Federation, has a very active government affairs committee. "We push down events to each of the states so they can have a legislative event in each state," she said. There's also a national Fly-In event in Washington, D.C., where utility representatives can meet face-to-face with legislators. "That is invaluable," she said, but acknowledged that not everyone can do that. "You can still engage them at the state level [and] at the local level," she noted, and added that professional associations are an excellent resource for developing your outreach strategy.