Clarity Blog

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Posts Tagged ‘Water’

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.

Messaging That Isn’t All Wet

The grass isn’t greener in Sacramento

The long-awaited and often-delayed California water bond is one of the primary agenda items during the brief mid-summer legislative session in Sacramento. Before August 31, two-thirds of the Legislature must agree to a new bond, or to remove the old bond from the ballot. If they don’t, the old $11.14 billion water bond will go on the ballot with Gov. Brown’s active opposition, and will almost certainly be defeated.

Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, purveyors of what’s second only to air for 19 million Southern Californians, definitely has a dog in this fight, and that dog has a very well-constructed bark: MWD’s messages regarding what they’d like to see in a water bond are clear, straightforward and strong.

In the interest of recognizing good messaging, here it is:

Water Bond Priorities
Restoring Delta, Reducing Reliance, Statewide Improvements

Public water agencies and business organizations from throughout California that receive supplies from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay-Delta are united in their support for a comprehensive Water Bond that achieves the co-equal goals of restoring the Delta and providing reliable water supplies statewide. 

Delta Restoration – Critical for California’s environment and economy
•  
Must provide significant funding for public benefits associated with habitat restoration
•  Must provide significant funding for voluntary flow purchase programs to improve fish conditions

Department of Fish &  Wildlife – Best agency to oversee restoration funding 
•  Has decades of experience facilitating and managing habitat restoration
•  Already subject to direct oversight by Legislature
•  Has successful track record and institutional infrastructure in place to facilitate and manage habitat restoration.

Delta Conservancy – Not best agency to oversee restoration funding
•  Has no experience facilitating or managing habitat restoration
•  Primary focus on economic sustainability could conflict with restoration objectives
•  Five board members represent counties opposed to Bay Delta Conservation Plan, one of the most promising and comprehensive restoration plans in the nation designed to achieve co-equal goals.
•  Habitat restoration projects should be funded based on scientific merits and public benefits, not local politics
•  Was never intended to be sole agency for reviewing or implementing habitat restoration in Delta

Reducing Future Reliance on Delta through Development of Local Supplies 
•  Must provide funding for urban conservation, recycling, groundwater remediation, desalination, watershed management and stormwater development
•  Must provide funding for on-farm efficiency, system improvements and increased groundwater storage
•  Local matching funds should be required, as appropriate

Statewide System Improvements 
•  Must provide funding for public benefits associated with surface and groundwater storage
•  Projects must openly compete for bond funding
•  Local matching funds should be required, as appropriate

That’s it, and that’s about as good as it gets. Why? First, MWD  has taken one of the most controversial and complex issues in California and boiled it down to one page. Then there’s the clear statement of purpose below the headline, which focuses the discussion back at the basics, the co-equal goals. After that comes a structure makes it very easy to get to the topic of the moment, with each bullet presenting a single point as a fact, unencumbered by partisan rhetoric.

Whatever your position on this (and if  you don’t have a position, don’t worry – you’re like almost everyone outside the water wonk community), you should see this as a model of good messaging.

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.

The Wizard of WISG?

 

I had the honor recently of becoming a two-time guest moderator at a  Water Interest Study Group (WISG) put on by Mesa Water District for its customers.  I don’t know if two sessions as moderator qualifies me as a “wizard” quite yet, but what are you going to do with those headline writers? They’re always after the sensational!

This session covered new ways of using groundwater and stormwater to meet local water supply needs, and the WISG class was, as always, engaged, bright and interested. Learn more about Mesa Water’s use of color-tainted groundwater here and Costa Mesa’s new water quality wetland here.

The photo shows me, Laer, with Stacy Taylor, Mesa Water’s community and government relations manager, as the session wrapped up.  Let me call your attention to two things.

First, check out Mesa Water’s new logo on the podium (and on the right). All of us at Laer Pearce & Associates are proud of the work we did helping to usher in the district’s new name, new logo and new branding strategy. I’m particularly proud of the logo – doesn’t it look fantastic? It’s bright, it beautifully symbolizes the flow of pure, clean water, and it embodies the district’s brand as a forward-looking, fiscally responsible water provider.

Some anti-desalination activists, who routinely target Mesa Water because of its leadership in efforts to improve the regulatory process for new desal plants, have attacked the district and this firm for this rebranding work.  Such criticism comes with the territory, but in reality Mesa Water is very fiscally conservative, with the lowest expenses per capita of any district in the county, and we are very careful to keep spending down when taxpayers or ratepayers are footing the bill. Under Stacy’s direction, we succeeded in moving a new name and new logo through a divided board of directors for a price that’s just a fraction of what such an effort would cost a corporation.

Second, note that Stacy is holding my book Crazifornia, and is saying wonderful things about it to the audience. I think she probably sold a few copies that night – so thanks, Stacy!

Crazifornia: Three Crappy Regulatory Battles

Here’s Laer’s latest column on California’s crazy regulatory environment, which is cross-posted at CalWatchdog.

For a lot of very good reasons, California’s environmental regulators have earned a reputation for being, well, crappy to the rest of us. Three ongoing California regulatory battles over poop reinforce their already well-deserved reputation.

The first battle is between the California Coastal Commission and the city of Morro Bay over the city’s proposed new wastewater treatment plant. The city, called by some the Gibraltar of the Pacific because the massive Morro Rock dominates its harbor, made the terrible mistake of wanting to do the right thing. It, along with the Cayucos Community Services District, wants to replace an aging wastewater treatment plant with a new facility that will clean wastewater to higher levels and produce recycled water.

Less pollution going into the ocean and less fresh water used to water yards seem like good ideas … except to the California Coastal Commission. The Commission’s executive director, Charles Lester, has decided coastal towns should move their unsightly infrastructure away from the coast, to inland locations. There’s one little problem with this idea: It defies gravity.

Sewage treatment plants are located at the low point of local geography – the coast in California – because it’s much cheaper to let the sewage flow by gravity to the plant than it is to pump it uphill to an inland plant. In Morro Bay, the Commission’s staff, on its own, found a site about one mile from the coast it decreed to be the superior location for wastewater treatment. It is recommending the Commission force the city to build the plant there.

If the eco-bureaucrats prevail, they will turn the three-year project into a ten-year one and raise its cost from $60 million to $90 million. They will also saddle Morro Bay’s 10,000 residents with higher bills, since it takes a lot of money – and burns a lot of carbon fuel – to pump sewage uphill. This fact seems to be lost on the Commission’s staff, which claims it wants to move infrastructure off the coast not for aesthetic reasons, but because of sea level rise caused by global warming … which in turn is caused, we’re told, by burning a lot of carbon fuel.

The matter was on the Commission’s October agenda, but staff pulled it when the city pointed out major inaccuracies and flawed assumptions in the staff’s report.

Cormorant Poop

Then there’s the battle over cormorant, pelican and sea gull poop that’s piling up on the rocks in the tony San Diego coastal enclave of La Jolla.  Scenic, rocky La Jolla Cove has become an open cesspool, resident Ed Witt told the Union Tribune, adding, “You couldn’t operate a zoo like this.” The problem started when much of La Jolla’s rocky shore was put off limits to humans, encouraging birds to flock to the rocks, relieving themselves with impressive regularity.

So why not just wash off the poop? That would be fine, regulators at the Coastal Commission and San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board say, but only if the city submits a plan describing every detail of how they’ll do it – what methods and materials they’ll use, how they’ll protect the ocean and how they’ll ensure pooping pelicans and cruddy cormorants aren’t bothered.

If the clean-up plan poses any perceived threat to birds or marine life, then the California Department of Fish & Game, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service stand poised to join the battle.

It’s not even possible to create a timeline for reaching a solution to this monumental problem, since the Regional Water Quality Control Board has deemed it a low priority. Residents and business owners, who fear the smell will drive away tourists, disagree.

Home Invasion

San Diego’s Regional Water Quality Control Board – which I fought unsuccessfully when it decreed that rainwater becomes toxic the moment it hits the ground – is the cause of the third poop battle as well.

Because it succeeded in defining fallen rain as toxic, the Board now exerts its authority beyond the prior limits of its purview, the gutter, and reaches into people’s yards. This change is reflected in proposed new regulations that  would subject homeowners to six years in prison and fines of $100,000 a day if they repeatedly let dog poop sit un-picked up in their own backyards.  Similar punishments would be meted out to those who repeatedly allow their sprinklers to hit the pavement and those who wash their car in their driveway.

The Board’s goal is to cut the amount of bacteria in runoff that reaches the ocean. That reminded me of a study conducted some years ago – in Morro Bay, interestingly enough. Scientists collected samples of ocean water and isolated the DNA from fecal coliform found in it to trace its source. They found it to be overwhelmingly not pet or human in origin, but the DNA of coyotes, rabbits, deer, seals, sea birds and fish.

What will California’s regulators come up with next? Diapers for dolphins?

 

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.

Are Water Agencies About to Drown in Positive Polling?

A recent survey conducted by the Municipal Water District of Orange County found that 93 percent of the 500 respondents feel Orange County’s water supply is somewhat reliable or very reliable.  That’s big news to us in the business of influencing public behavior, because a similar question asked in the agency’s 2008 survey found that only 27 percent felt OC had a reliable supply.

So can us communicators take credit for the nearly four-fold jump in public perception?  After all, our water supply is just as reliable today (or unreliable depending how you look at it) than it was three years ago.  We humbly say, “not so fast.”

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Water Weekly 3: Truncated – The Weekly Two

What were the three biggest California water stories of the past seven days?  Well, the news-heads and policy wonks here at Laer Pearce & Associates have compiled them for you here.  You’ll find the Big Three here every week, or you can follow LPAWater on Twitter for up-to-the-minute news and analysis. You can also sign up to receive the Weekly 3 via email here.  This week:

“Results-Based Science” Update

We’ve written before about Judge Wanger’s shellacking of two federal scientists who he thought were more interested in achieving pre-determined results than pursuing good science.  The issue is not going away, as Republicans seeking to dial back federal regulation have pounced on the case as an emerging cause célèbre, and the feds are standing by their science … and scientists. Wow! Could this become an HBO miniseries?

“100% behind them” – read about it here

“Investigate ‘em!” – read about it here

BTW, a Supreme Court appeal was filed on Delta smelt

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Water Weekly 3: Back to School

What were the three biggest California water stories of the past seven days?  Well, the news-heads and policy wonks here at Laer Pearce & Associates have compiled them for you here.  You’ll find the Big Three here every week, or you can follow LPAWater on Twitter for up-to-the-minute news and analysis. You can also sign up to receive the Weekly 3 via email here.  This week:

Elementary Errors Plague Delta Plan

Our teachers told us we needed to know the basics first, then we’d get to the stuff we liked.  (Like recess!)  We’ve been looking at the fifth draft of the Delta Stewardship Council’s Delta Plan and we’re ready to rap some knuckles with our ruler (if that’s not considered child abuse now).  It seems they weren’t paying attention to the basics – you know, stuff like how we get less water in dry years than wet ones.  Pay attention, kids, this is going to be on the final: Draft #5 gets a D and can’t be allowed to be the final draft – it’s time to act!

Here’s a little knuckle-rapping by two who got the basics right

ACWA wants you to send a letter like this to a list like this

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