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Posts Tagged ‘water policy’

One City’s Drought Communications “Fail”

I just watched a city council adopt a communication campaign that will do a lousy job of informing residents of the new water restrictions and fines it had just adopted in response to state mandates. For Californians to respond effectively to the drought, we’re all going to have to do better than this city did.

“Thanks” to city council input, residents of the San Gabriel Valley city will receive a cover letter and three separate inserts – four pieces in all, competing for attention, over-communicating and creating confusion – all in a bland envelope that will be lost in the day’s mailbox-full of unsolicited mail.

That’s going to be as expensive as it is ineffective.

The city did one thing right. It didn’t use a water bill insert, recognizing it wouldn’t get enough readership in a timely manner. But if you’re going to use an envelope (I wouldn’t!), you’d better print a high-impact headline on it or it’s likely to go out with next week’s trash, unopened.

Here’s a better alternative: Mail two postcards on the same day, one over-sized and one minimum USPS size. Why postcards? Because they get the message out without having an envelope in the way. Why two?

  • The large one would spell out the details, and by limiting the space to a large postcard, there’s much less chance of your message becoming gobbledygook.
  • The small postcard would be the “keeper,” designed with the refrigerator door in mind. All the good stuff would be on one side: Which days they can irrigate on, prohibitions and fines, tips, an easy URL for more information.

Combined with good policy and customer-oriented enactment, this will work.

Media’s Failure to Report on Water – Good or Bad?

Even in our dry, drought-prone realm, you’d be hard pressed to find any newspaper with a reporter assigned solely to the water beat.

That’s not a guess. Kate Galbraith, a San Francisco-based journalist, recently wrote in America’s premier journalism publication, the Columbia Journalism Review,

 When I Googled “water reporter” over and over again, [only] one guy showed up. His name is Chris Woodka, and he works in Colorado at the Pueblo Chieftain, a daily based about 100 miles south of Denver.

No one showed up for the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Orange County Register, the Phoenix American, the Las Vegas Review Journal or any of hundreds of other papers covering America’s drought belt. Galbrath explains why she thinks this is:

I couldn’t prove it, but I suspected that even as the [Texas] Tribune [which she reported for] pounded away at water stories, and invited the public to panel after panel of discussions about water, the audience was often people who were already engaged. The challenge was reaching ordinary citizens—many of whom might not even know there is a water crisis.

Two polls show the magnitude of this challenge. Last year, a survey by the University of Texas and The Texas Tribune found that water lay near the bottom of Texans’ policy priorities, despite the ongoing drought. In California, which is now enduring its most intense drought on record, a 2012 poll showed that 78 percent of respondents had never heard of the river delta at the heart of the state’s water-supply system.

To an editor, water news is neither “dog bites man” or “man bites dog.” It’s no one cares whether the dog or the man bit anything.

This lack of coverage hurts a water community that is trying to increase public awareness of the value of water, the need to conserve and the need to invest in improved supply reliability and infrastructure. But before we lament our inability to call the local paper’s in-the-know, experienced water reporter, let’s consider two things.

First, he or she is not likely to be in-the-know and experienced. The sorry state of the newspaper business has led to high turn-over, especially among the (relatively) well-paid more senior reporters.  Chances are, if you were working with a dedicated water beat reporter, you’d be working with a recent hire who didn’t know much more about water than the 78 percent who never heard of the  Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

And forget broadcast outlets. Their on-camera “personalities” may have a bit more experience, but unless the water kills someone or is really, really cute, they’re probably not going to cover it.

And second, given the pressure on reporters to write stories that generate comments, what do you suppose they’d be writing about? Would it be the need to invest in boring old concrete infrastructure, or a justification of a district’s proposed rate increase?

We don’t think so. In the times a water beat reporter would find exciting, like the current drought, you’d get sensationalism in overkill mode. Galbrath recognizes this, listing “Drought and cattle! Drought and rice farmers! Drought and climate change! Drought and power plants!  Drought and  hunting! Drought and the military!” – with a link to each one!

Such coverage might drive temporary conservation, but the goal of any experienced water communicator should be to change long-time water use patterns, not support come-and-go drought-related conservation.

In less “exciting” times, would you see articles that support a more enlightened citizen view of water? Articles that explain the value of water or the need to conserve it? Sure. Some.

But you would see much more of  sensationalism in non-drought clothing. “Water district expenses out of control! Water quality deteriorates! Widow can’t pay water bill!  Water employees get lush retirement packages! District director takes golf junket!”

So, maybe it isn’t such a bad thing after all that water communicators must constantly struggle to get the media interested in the only thing on the entire planet that’s almost as essential as the very air we breathe.

 

2014 Budget: Water Funding

Even with a drought declaration looming, water didn’t make the three-paragraph cover letter to the 2014-2015 California budget (education, health care and prisons did). Still, it garnered a mention in the second paragraph of the budget’s executive summary – a sign the governor is giving high priority to the state’s water issues.

Water expenditures of $618.7 million are spread around throughout the budget’s Environmental Protection and Natural Resources sections. Fortunately, a chart on page 120 summarizes the expenditures. The chart and the narrative that follows provide  more detail than we are, but here are the basics:

  • Sustainable groundwater management: $1.9 million
  • Groundwater ambient monitoring and assessment: $3.0 million
  • Groundwater data collection and evaluation: $2.9 million
  • Interim replacement drinking water in disadvantaged communities: $4.0 million
  • Wastewater projects in small disadvantaged communities: $7.0 million
  • Water and energy efficiency (projects that reduce energy use related to the delivery and treatment of water): $20.0 million
  • Restore coastal and mountain wetlands: $30.0 million
  • Protect and restore the Salton Sea: $0.4 million
  • Increase flood protection (Flood SAFE program): $77.0 million
  • Integrated regional water management programs (increasing regional self-reliance): $472.5 million

That last one is the biggie that will garner the most interest from the state’s water providers. The funds will be used for “incentives for both regional integration and to leverage local financial investment for water conservation efforts, habitat protection for local species, water recycling, stormwater capture, and desalination projects.” At least $47.25 million (10 percent) must be spent in disadvantaged communities.

Also of note to our friends in the Northern California water community, there’s another $1.5 million tucked away in the Department of Fish & Wildlife budget to address illegal streambed alterations by marijuana growers. Stopping that will help stop the associated water pollution problems the pot-growers cause.

Remember, this is a budget proposal. We won’t know what the water community will receive – and the related attached incentives and restrictions – until the legislature is through with it.

Our Crumbling Water Infrastructure

The American Society of  Civil Engineers didn’t have much good to say about California’s water infrastructure in its recent report card on all the state’s civil infrastructure.  Here it is, from an ASCE news release:

Water (2012 grade: C)

“With regard to water supply, California is literally living off of the past and the tremendous legacy of the first Governor Brown. However, that is no longer sufficient,” said Meyer. While taking care to protect the environment, California needs more and upgraded water storage and water transport facilities. Public-private partnerships are particularly useful tool for delivering new water supply projects. “Not only is most of our water infrastructure old, it is no longer adequate to meet the needs of our current and projected population. If we are going to provide job opportunities for our young people, if our farmers are going to maintain the productivity of their land, and if our families are going to have enough water to meet their needs, we simply need more water supply.”

Levees/Flood Control (2012 grade: D)

Today’s engineers and construction contractors have much better tools and much more knowledge about levees, than we had when most of our levees were originally designed and constructed. Rather than wait for another life threatening disaster to happen, California needs to act now to dedicate an adequate revenue stream to get the job done. Not only is this essential for human safety, it will also be far, far cheaper to fix our levees in advance, than it will be to do major clean up and repair work after a disaster. “Most of California’s levees are old and have lost much of their original strength ability to hold back flood waters. The danger to California homes and businesses and human life is very real,” commented Meyer. “There is no excuse for failing to upgrade and strengthen our levees.”

At the local level, we think the “C” grade for water is too low.  Our many water district clients all are excellent at managing and maintaining their systems, as are most other independent water districts.  Some cities do have pronounced problems with aging water infrastructure, however, probably because city councils have used water revenues for sexier stuff that’s more likely to garner votes than a new pump or pipe.

Statewide, however, it’s another story.  We agree that we’ve been riding on Pat Brown’s back for far too long and it’s past time to address the need to upgrade California’s backbone water infrastructure.

Endless Studies and Bloodthirsty Sharks

Our new water Weekly 3 is out – and can be read here.  As faithful readers have come to expect, it’s full of the latest water news … but this time with a bit more bite than usual.  Check out this entry:

Sharks Found In MWD Water!

Some of the most dangerous sharks on the planet have “Esq.” after their names, and a particularly bloodthirsty species was found this week hunting for food in MWD’s water supply. The San Francisco class action law firm of Blumenthal Nordrehaug Bhomik & Greatwhite (just kidding on that last name) sued MWD “in the interest of millions of consumers” (wink, wink) claiming MWD’s use of “a hydrofluosilicic acid drug” for fluoridation may lead people to have fewer cavities without their consent. Really. The firm’s news release threatens other water districts “across the country,” so watch out for sharks in your water!

For the rest of the Weekly 3 (and links about the lawsuit and that potentially lucrative hydrofluosilicic acid drug), here’s that link again.

“Turn Off the Water When You Brush” Just Ain’t Enough

All around California, updated Urban Water Management Plans (UWMPs) are appearing, as required by state law.  Here’s the lead of a news story that ‘s typical of many we’ve seen in the last few weeks:

LAKEWOOD – The city is reminding residents to stop watering sidewalks and conserve water for outdoor irrigation in an effort to meet the state’s 2020 goal of 20percent water reduction.

Conservation was part of the message at Tuesday night’s City Council’s meeting, where the council approved the Urban Water Management Plan Update 2010.

The updated plan is required every five years by the state and includes plans for water supply, water shortage contingencies and achieving the state’s goal of 20percent reduction in water use by 2020.

Of necessity, the “20 by 2020″ water conservation goal (and its companion “15 by 2015″ goal) from 2009′s epochal water legislation is at the core of all new UWMPs, and it seems the plans’ authors have rounded up the usual suspects when discussing how they’ll achieve those goals:  Incentives, seeking funding for new conservation-oriented programs, education and outreach.

To which we say, great, nice start, and good luck with that. You’re going to need it.

It’s not that those sorts of efforts haven’t proven effective. They have. We know because we’ve helped many districts communicate programs like that.  It’s just that more will be needed. As the headline says, alluding to the most famous of the old way of promoting conservation, “Turn of the water when you brush” just ain’t enough.  Not enough people will listen, fewer still will change their habits, and even if they did, not enough water will be saved.

Let’s get more aggressive

We’ve been thinking about new ways to attain the sorts of water savings that will have to be achieved to keep water providers out of the penalty box when 2015 and 2020 roll around. They include:

  • Re-think the water bill - We’re most excited about the missed communication opportunities on water bills, especially ebills.  Bills are the one document customers read regularly, but they’re a confusing mess and a messaging nightmare. We’re developing some great new ideas – let’s set up a meeting with your billing service.
  • Coalesce and conquer - Ever heard of an advertising coop? It’s when a bunch of businesses, like the individual car dealers in an auto mall, join forces to buy more ads than they could ever buy on their own. We have developed ideas and themes that a “communication coop” of several water providers in a region could mutually hit a home run with.  Who’s going to step up to the plate?
  • Water budget based rates – Yes, this is a really big idea and you’d have to start  now to get them in place in time to get some years under your belt before the deadlines hit. So get started – and let us help you manage a successful Prop 218 campaign, as we’ve done for many water providers. In district after district, the penalty rates for excessive water use have educated customers more about what constitutes an efficient level of water use than a blizzard of statement-stuffers ever could.
  • Expanded programs - The new money that comes from those penalty rates can fund an unprecedented level of conservation outreach, including rebates, audits, consults and new communications tools … like the new bills we want to help you develop.

Unlike much of what comes out of Sacramento, California actually needs the 20 by 2020 goals the Legislature set for us.  Of course, the Legislature didn’t give you the tools or money to go along with the mandate, so it’s going to take a real commitment and really creative thinking to meet the goals. Let’s talk.

Fact-Checking Democrats’ Water Statement

Last week’s Congressional water hearing in Fresno, if nothing else, produced thousands of acre-feet of hyperbole – if politically expedient but morally challenged statements can be measured that way.  The Natural Resource Defense Council’s particularly reprehensible propaganda is discussed in the post below; this post focuses on an article covering the position of Congressional Democrats regarding the hearing, “California Lawmakers Seek Statewide Approach to Water Supply.”

The article quotes Grace Napolitano as the lead spokesperson for the Dems.  We like Napolitano on water issues.  Her district runs from East Los Angeles to Pomona, so she understands that her constituents are largely dependent on water delivered to Southern California from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and the Colorado River.  As the former chair and current ranking member of the House Subcommittee on Water and Power, she has done a lot to support a Delta solution and to bring federal dollars to groundwater clean-up, recycling and desalination efforts.

Fortunately for our positive view of Napolitano (just on water issues, mind you), the statement that we’re fact-checking here was not attributed to the Congresswoman, so we must credit it to the editors and writers at Environmental Protection, where the article appeared.  Here it is:

Last year, the state reported that the closure of salmon fishing cost the economy at least $250 million. Recent studies have estimated that nearly 2,000 salmon fishermen have been unable to work over the last three years, job loss figures comparable to the number of farm workers who could not work due to pumping restrictions during the drought. (emphasis added)

On its face, this statement is true.  Job losses among salmon fishers are comparable to job losses among farm workers who couldn’t find work because drought and environmental restrictions shut of the spigot to many Central Valley farms.  The comparison is this:  Salmon industry job losses are probably one percent or so of agricultural job losses.

In the town of Mendota alone, which I visited when its unemployment rate hit 38 percent at the peak of the weather-and-regulatory drought, if we assume half of the town’s population of 10,000 is made up of workers, then 1,900 people were unemployed in that town alone. There are towns like Mendota every few miles throughout the  Central Valley, so the editors of Environmental Protection are guilty of minimizing human suffering for political gain, a not uncommon but always unwise tactic.

Besides, there is no consensus whatsoever that the decline in California salmon populations can be tied to pumping water south from the Delta.  In fact, the consensus seems to be shifting to blaming any number of other causes, including ammonia from sewage treatment plants, predation by non-native striped bass, oceanic conditions’ impact on salmon food supply, overpopulation of protected predatory sea mammals, and others.

Everything I’ve learned in a career in public affairs and strategic communications tells me the complex debate over California water supply and the challenging (and likely impossible) effort to find a course of action that pleases all constituents is not furthered by this sort of destructive and divisive language.

Watered-Down Truth

It’s interesting that the Natural Resource Defense Council’s blog is called “Switchboard,” since switchboards use electricity, and electricity is, you know, destroying the planet.  Be that as it may, the blog is often a source for remarkably thoughtful dissertations from an environmental perspective, so I read it regularly.

Today, however, Switchboard switched me back to the Cold War, when the Soviet propaganda machine was churning out half-truths nonstop.  How can one forget the Pravda headline about a baseball game that said “Soviets come in second, US next to last,” without mentioning only two teams were playing?

NRDC staffer Doug Obegi is at the same game with his post today,Important Facts for Today’s Congressional Hearing on California Water Supply.” His use of the word “facts” might as well have a big red star on it, for it’s a very loose interpretation of the whole concept of truth.  (For a more balanced report on the hearing, read this Fresno Bee article.)

Here’s his first “fact:”  “ESA protections have had no impact on water allocations this year.”  That’s like saying it rained a little after Noah built his ark.  The 2010-2011 rain year was one of the wettest in history, with nearly 80 feet of snow falling in the Sierras, so more than enough water is flowing through the Sacrament0-San Joaquin Delta to allow the pumps to run, despite Endangered Species Act protections on Delta smelt and salmon.  It wasn’t that way last year and it’s not likely to be that way next year.

Besides, it’s only April of “this year.” Who knows where we’ll be in August or December?

Obegi also points to the “fact” that “Recently, lack of demand completely shut down the Delta pumps.”  Are we to believe that everyone in every Southern California metropolis suddenly packed up and moved to Pago Pago, Tahiti? That every farmer in the Central Valley decided that fallowing fields was the new way to sudden wealth?  Of course not – it’s the Noah’s ark thing again, showing the author is not afraid to make a dishonest point twice.

Then there’s Obegi’s argument that protecting the endangered species of the Delta protects jobs. That’s true – but just barely.  If one focuses only on the Delta, and only on the fisheries jobs in the Delta – a $250 million industry in the best of years – we can nod our heads and give Obegi a kudo.  But, pardon the pun, the Delta fisheries industry is small fry by California standards.  Pumping curtailments in 2009 and early 2010 caused billions of dollars in losses to Central Valley agriculture alone, and forced water users throughout much of the state to pay billions more for water due to rate increases.

There are many more similar corruptions of the public dialog in the piece, but I can’t end without bringing up Obegi’s characterization of the 2009 legislative water package.  Laer Pearce & Associates used our public affairs contacts and skills to shore up support for the package among the Orange County delegation, so we can take some credit in its passage – which is why Obegi’s characterization is so offensive.  Here it is:

California Law Requires Reducing Reliance on the Delta and Strengthening Environmental Protections

In 2009, California adopted a landmark package of water legislation, and established a state policy of reducing reliance on water exports from the Delta and investing in regional tools like water efficiency, wastewater recycling, groundwater cleanup, and stormwater capture. Instead of waiving environmental laws, this legislation strengthened environmental protections in the Bay-Delta. These policies are the cornerstone of a 21st Century water policy for California, and are the most cost-effective way for California to prepare for the next drought.

What the legislation actually required was recognition of the “co-equal goals” of, first, protecting and enhancing the Delta’s ecosystem and, first (since that what co-equal means), ensuring a reliable water supply.   He’s right that the legislation heightened protections on the Delta (so why is he so freaked out?), but he’s wrong in saying the environmental protections are the cornerstone of 21st Century water policy for the state. The cornerstone is the co-equal goals, and trying to pretend it’s otherwise is just like pretending the Soviet team came in ahead of the U.S. one in that baseball game Pravda covered.

Obegi should apologize to his readers for assuming they’re a bunch of rubes instead of well-informed citizens. And maybe the NRDC should commit to telling the truth instead of propagating propaganda.

It’s Fish v. Humans, with a Little Twitter on the Side

Re-cap from the MWDOC Water Policy Forum

Future reliability of water supplied from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is top-of-mind for water wonks across the state.  At the Municipal Water District of Orange County’s (MWDOC) Water Policy Forum and Dinner last month, the topic was the center of keynote speaker Gregory Wilkinson’s remarks.  Wilkinson, a lawyer who specializes in water allocation cases, warns that the feds aren’t budging from their stance that puts the needs of the Delta Smelt above the water needs of millions of Californians, but water agencies aren’t giving up on alternatives that help both fish and people.

Laer attended the dinner with iPhone in hand to live-tweet Wilkinson’s remarks.  Those tweets have been packaged as an article in the current issue of MWDOC’s E-currents newsletter, which can be read in its entirely here.

LP&A Creates New LinkedIn Group for Water Policy Professionals

Thanks to Laer Pearce & Associates, professionals that work with water policy around the world now have a LinkedIn group where they can discuss topics related to helping set and navigate water policy.  The Water Policy Professionals group encourages members to discuss legislation, communication strategies, regulations, incentives and news regarding policy on water supply, quality and pricing.  It will also include job postings and other networking functions.

Laer set up the group because he believes idea-sharing and open communications can help to find consensus on highly contentious issues – or at least move the discussion forward instead of having it bog down in rhetoric wars.

The group is a sister to LP&A’s other LinkedIn group, Water Conservation Professionals, which has 513 members. Seven people joined Water Policy Professionals in its first 30 minutes.

LP&A has been working on water-related issues for more than 20 years and is actively involved in helping to set policy for water issues on local, regional and state-wide levels.  We currently serve four water and wastewater agencies and CalDesal, a nonprofit advocating for pro-desalination policies and regulation in California.