Five smart ways to engage water communities

SFPUC community outreach (Credit: Emil Siapno)

By Juliet Ellis

Whether it is climate change adaptation, water quality protection, or investing in ageing infrastructure, water sector professionals face new and evolving challenges when managing our world’s water supply. The only certainty is that traditional unilateral approaches are no longer cutting it. Resource planning and management is a dynamic two-way street.

In booming cities and small rural communities alike, local residents are no longer passive consumers of centralised services. They expect to be invited and involved in the utility decision-making processes that impact them and to receive multiple benefits from infrastructure investments. To balance the needs of the customers and build resiliency in the places on which utilities depend, water professionals are turning to effective community engagement, sustainability and environmental justice strategies.

Approaching customers as active partners can change how they view, value and manage water and wastewater resources. Here are five ways we can leverage community engagement to garner public support, enhance locations where our operations reside, promote sustainability, and run more efficiently.

1. Commit to being a good neighbour–in writing

First, embed environmental and community needs into the fabric of water infrastructure and planning projects. The best way to do so is through a utility’s mission, policies and strategic planning. When creating plans and policies, consider how each one might impact local communities and the environment and can be leveraged to benefit the community, course correct when necessary, mitigate any potential harm, and make this practice the norm at every level of the organisation.

The core mission of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) goes beyond just providing services. We do so “in a manner that is inclusive of environmental and community interests.” To back up that promise, we became the first US utility to pass Environmental Justice and Community Benefits Policies. These policies shape our approach to community engagement and collaboration, project planning and construction. They ensure we reach out to and consistently engage with all our constituents, especially those communities impacted by our operations.

2. Create Equitable Community Engagement

Water professionals face real challenges when providing services. Sometimes our operations and infrastructure are disruptive or negatively impact the communities where we work. That’s why it is so vital to engage proactively with local residents during all stages of a project or programme. At the SFPUC, we created “equitable engagement guidelines” which help ensure we are having discussions with the diverse communities being impacted by a specific project through the planning, design and construction phases of our Sewer System Improvement Program (SSIP) projects.

The Bayview-Hunters Point neighbourhood is home to one of the SFPUC’s largest resources–the Southeast Treatment Plant. The plant manages 80 percent of San Francisco’s wastewater, allowing us to have safe, reliable and operational sewer services. While critical to our city, the plant’s location and smell has been a nuisance to Bayview residents. To lessen the environmental and social impacts of the plant in the 1970s and 1980s, we built the Southeast Community Facility and Greenhouses which provide neighbourhood residents with education and job training opportunities.

As we upgrade the plant, we are simultaneously working with the Bayview community to address their needs, improve the facilities, and consider their input. In 2016, after an extensive community engagement process–knocking on more than 2,400 doors, collecting 1,000 in depth surveys, holding 45 public meetings and receiving more than 27,000 impressions through online engagement tools–we learned that what residents really wanted was a new state of the art community centre. The centre is scheduled to open in 2021. We’re also rebuilding and relocating our digesters, a long-standing source of odour, so they are stationed further away from residential properties. And our new plant will be more integrated into the neighbourhood, appearing less like an industrial facility and more like a community asset.

3. Recruit Community Members

Stakeholder groups–boards, commissions and committees–ensure utilities are responsive to communities and consistently engage. These groups made up of community members and resident leaders can work alongside utilities to design, implement and evaluate programmes and policies, all while keeping the priorities of local residents at the forefront.

For example, our utility partners work with six advisory bodies to address topics of concern and interest to low-income ratepayers, renters, small businesses, families, immigrants and other communities most impacted by our operations. We encourage and seek out diverse stakeholder input which allows us to be accountable to community concerns and foster a culture of transparency. Our work with these committees has increased our capacity to conduct meaningful authentic engagement that improves our operations and capital programmes.

4. Spearhead Public Education

Everyone has a role to play in protecting and maintaining our environment. The public just needs the knowledge, tools and resources to do it. Many water utilities are stepping up to educate and engage with their local communities about how they can prevent water pollution and sustain our natural resources.

Our utility dedicates time and resources to educate and engage with communities about our mission, water systems, services and conservation resources and tools. Our own Adopt a Drain Program lets community members “adopt” one or more of the city’s 25,000 storm drains or catch basins–and pledge to help keep it free of leaves and debris. This helps to reduce flooding, especially during sudden storms, while inspiring local residents and families to be environmental stewards and become knowledgeable of our combined sewer system.

Water is serious, but it doesn’t have to be humourless. We look for unconventional ways to engage the public and to make our invisible systems visible. For example, to get people on board with 10 percent water conservation goals, we launched a public education campaign to show that water conservation is smart and sexy, with taglines like “When showering, make it a quickie.” And, when we raised awareness about our Sewer System Improvement Program (SSIP), we gave the sewer system a voice in ads and on social media by using funny slogans like “No one deals with more crap than I do” and “You can’t live a day without me.”

5. Adapt to Bottom-Up Needs

Not all community outreach is the same, of course. To select the appropriate level of engagement, water professionals should approach each challenge organically, based on considerations of the project, decision making process, and stakeholders. One tool is the International Association of Public Participation’s “Spectrum of Public Participation” to decide whether to inform, consult, involve, collaborate or empower communities.

No matter what approach you take, incorporate some level of engagement when working in local communities. Doing so produces better projects and garners more support for utilities’ initiatives, while growing a strong base of environmental stewards to protect our natural resources.


Juliet Ellis is the Chief Strategy Officer and Assistant General Manager of External Affairs at the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission