Two weeks ago, the Value of Water Coalition, of which NACWA is a member, released the findings of a national poll on public attitudes about water and it couldn’t be more timely. With the water crisis in Flint receiving substantial media attention across the nation, issues that are normally out of sight and out of mind for most people are coming to the surface. If it wasn’t clear before, the poll findings indicate that we are at a pivotal moment for influencing national opinions on water. How can industry leaders use these findings to guide our collective efforts to move the nation to value water and invest in it? Four key issues to consider rise to the top:
- Awareness & education has a high return on investment. Initially, respondents were evenly divided in their willingness to pay more to improve and modernize the water service: 47% were willing to pay more, 47% felt that water bills were high enough. Most adults who were willing to pay more for water service were comfortable with an increase of at least 5% to improve water infrastructure. That’s great news. But here is even better news: once respondents received messages about the value of water, there is a significant shift in the willingness to pay more – meaning 60% of Americans are willing to pay more when informed about water issues. This is evident among all subgroups, but especially with younger demographics, signaling that education now will pay off in the future.
- Americans overwhelmingly think water infrastructure should be improved and modernized. Even though a majority of Americans thought their local water infrastructure was in good shape, a whopping 95 percent report that it is important or very important to improve and modernize water infrastructure. In fact, a striking 71 percent think that it is VERY important. As an industry, it’s promising to have that kind of public support for securing our water systems. Although it may not translate at the local level, especially when the pricetag hits. As water and wastewater utilities across the country consider rate increases in order to improve local systems, the water industry needs sustained communication and education efforts to keep water top of mind for people and to illustrate the localized impact of their investments.
- We must balance investment with affordability. We know the bill is coming due for improvements to our nation’s water and wastewater systems. American Water Works Association estimates the US needs to invest $1 trillion dollars in the next 25 years to continue current levels of drinking water service. As encouraging as it is that people are willing to pay for these investments, 81 percent of the country is also concerned about having an affordable water bill. So we have a responsibility to make these investments with ratepayer affordability in mind. As utilities grapple with this challenge across the country, we need to deploy the most creative thinking from the water sector, philanthropy, and community organizations to arrive at innovative, multi-faceted solutions. It is also an opportunity to spark federal partnerships through policies and programs, like a Water Trust or assistance programs for low-income families.
- We need to continue to come together in a united voice. The majority of respondents, 86 percent, think water infrastructure in their local community is in good condition. This shouldn’t be too surprising – water systems can’t fail. Water and wastewater operators work around the clock to keep these systems running, so much so that the public has come to expect constant reliability from utilities. When the vulnerabilities of our water systems do reveal themselves, communities experience the cascading impacts to public health, the economy, and daily life as we know it. People may understand the need to invest, but not how pressing it truly is, reducing general willingness to pay more. This drives home the fact that we are at a critical moment to educate people about the value of water and the urgency to invest in it. The best way to do that is by bringing diverse partners together – public and private utilities, businesses, environmental organizations, elected officials – to speak about the value of water in a united voice. We are all dependent on water. And our secure water future depends on an educated nation.
The national poll presents promising public interest in water infrastructure issues and also reveals significant work to be done related to public perception. Yes, we need to invest. We also need to innovate, we need partnership, and we need to inspire the nation. The way we do that is by coming together under a common vision: securing a sustainable, reliable and safe water future where all water is valued.
Danielle Mayorga is the Program Manager at the U.S. Water Alliance, where she manages the Value of Water Coalition, a strategic initiative to educate and inspire the nation about how water is essential, invaluable, and needs investment. Danielle joined the Alliance after serving three years as a Policy Analyst at the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, where she helped advance the agency’s legislative agenda at the local, state and federal levels, and supported strategic policy development on issues such as capital infrastructure programs, rate setting, and community and economic benefits. In her spare time Danielle enjoys running along San Francisco’s many waterfronts.